Canadian passengers on virus-stricken Coral Princess cruise ship worry how they’ll get home

Canadian passengers on the Coral Princess cruise ship nearing Fort Lauderdale, Fla., worry how they’ll get home after at least a dozen COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed on board.

Their fears are stoked by the recent experience of the Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship that struggled to secure permission to dock in Fort Lauderdale because it, too, had a COVID-19 outbreak on board.

Coral Princess passenger Frank Béchamp of Nepean, Ont., said passengers got the bad news about their ship’s outbreak on Wednesday night.

“Our hearts sunk in momentary despair,” said Béchamp, 71, in an interview conducted by phone and email. 

“All aboard pray that the U.S.A. authorities permit us to dock and provide us passage to the airport so that we may continue our journey home.”

There are 1,020 passengers and 878 crew members on board the Coral Princess, which set sail on March 5 on a South American cruise — at a time when there were very few cases of COVID-19 in South America. 

Béchamp said about 100 Canadian passengers are on the ship, which is set to arrive in Fort Lauderdale Saturday morning. 

Princess Cruises’ Coral Princess has at least a dozen cases of COVID-19 among passengers on board the ship. (Princess Cruises)

On Thursday, Princess Cruises said in a statement that out of 13 passengers and crew tested for COVID-19 on board the Coral Princess, 12 were positive. 

Passengers are confined to their cabins and have been given face masks. 

Regarding docking in Fort Lauderdale, the cruise line said that it “continues to seek approvals through multiple diplomatic channels and to work with local officials for disembarkation in Ft. Lauderdale.”

CBC News reached out to Broward County commissioner Michael Udine for comment, but didn’t receive a reply in time for publication. Fort Lauderdale is part of Broward County. 

“Everyone’s a bit on edge,” said passenger Gary Lyon, 62, of Toronto, who has been communicating with fellow Canadians on board by email. “We’re very eager to get home.”

‘Let us off’

The Coral Princess cut its cruise short in mid-March, amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic. But the ship struggled to find a port to let passengers disembark and return home after nearby countries such as Argentina and Brazil shut their borders to foreigners during the pandemic.

Many passengers — including some Canadians — were able to disembark on March 19 in Buenos Aires to catch a flight home. But other passengers who had a flight departing the following day stayed on the ship — and then were stuck there after Argentina decided to close its borders to foreigners at midnight.

“Complete disappointment, I mean, we were all packed,” said Lyon, who, along with Béchamp, missed his March 20 flight home. 

Gary Lyon and his wife, Sue, enjoy an excursion to Ushuaia, Argentina, before Princess Cruises ended their cruise early. (submitted by Gary Lyon)

The Coral Princess is scheduled to end its journey at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. But the COVID-19-hit Zaandam, which was also scheduled to dock there, faced opposition because the region is already battling its own COVID-19 epidemic.

After much debate and grumbling from local politicians, the Zaandam and its sister ship, the Rotterdam were finally granted permission to dock on Thursday. 

Lyon said he hopes that means local officials will also let in the Coral Princess. 

“Let us off and put us on the fastest bus possible to the airport,” said Lyon, adding that Princess Cruises said it would book flights home for passengers. 

Béchamp said he hopes the Canadian government will assist in getting Canadian passengers home.  

“We pray that our government is exploring every possible avenue with the U.S.A. port authorities to get us back to Canada.” 

Global Affairs Canada didn’t reply to a request for comment in time for the publication of this story. 

Carnival Corp. responds

Both Princess Cruises and Holland America are owned by Carnival Corporation

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Holland America’s Zaandam and four Princess cruise ships — the Diamond Princess, the Grand Princess, the Ruby Princess and the Coral Princess — have had coronavirus outbreaks. Only the Coral Princess is still at sea. 

As a result of those outbreaks, at least 13 people have died and more than 900 passengers have contracted COVID-19.

Cruise lines suspended their operations in mid-March as the global pandemic spread, but some cruise ships that were still at sea were unable to find an immediate place to dock. 

Carnival Corp. told CBC News that in comparison to the number of COVID-19 cases on land — which now totals one million — the spread of the virus on cruise ships pales in comparison.

“Any case is unfortunate,” spokesperson Roger Frizzell said in an email. “But while there have been a few very high profile instances of guests on cruise ships testing positive, in reality, these situations have been at a far lower rate by comparison than the rate of spread of COVID-19 throughout communities around the world.”

He said that cruise ships have strict cleansing and sanitation protocols and adopted enhanced screenings during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Fizzell said that Carnival Corp. is working with health authorities on additional health and safety measures to further protect passengers on cruises.

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