photo of Port Everglades by Flickr user Monica R.
Sometime in the next few days, and much to the consternation of many of my neighbors, the virus-stricken cruise ship Zaandam is likely to dock somewhere in Florida.
Hospitality is suddenly a scarce commodity in a state with an economy built on the hospitality industry, which notoriously welcomed spring break revelers to many of its beaches a mere 10 days ago. What Florida now has in unreasoning abundance is fear – specifically, the kind of fear that seeks to close the gates to outsiders when the real threat is already well established inside our walls.
This is hard for me to write, for a couple of reasons. One is that I am generally proud of my adopted home state. I admire its can-do enterprising spirit and its customary willingness to welcome newcomers of all stripes. Florida is my home by choice rather than necessity.
The other reason I find it difficult to take issue with my fellow Floridians is that I am not home right now. If I were home in Fort Lauderdale, I could watch from my living room if the Zaandam – or its similarly needful Holland America sister ship, the Rotterdam – entered Port Everglades. I would be as exposed as anyone else to whatever consequences granting such safe harbor might bring to our community.
But I am more than 1,000 miles away. I am waiting out the pandemic in seclusion in suburban New York in order to be near family members, notably my 93-year-old mother, who lives on her own. Some would say that where I stand on the issue of the distressed cruise ships is a function of where I am sitting. So I am disclosing my whereabouts in the interest of fairness. I don’t think I would feel differently if I were home, but you can draw your own conclusion.
The Zaandam left Buenos Aires on March 7 with 1,243 passengers and 586 crew aboard. The voyage was to take the liner, after a stop in the Falkland Islands (known to South Americans as the Islas Malvinas), around the continent’s southern tip and up the Chilean coast. Passengers, including hundreds of Americans, came from all over the world. There were only a handful of COVID-19 cases reported in South America at the time of departure, and there were no official travel advisories in place that would have affected the cruise. At the time the ship departed, the World Health Organization would not declare COVID-19 a pandemic for another four days.
But on March 15, while the ship prepared for a planned stop in Punta Arenas, Chile the next day, Chile closed its ports. Argentina had done the same on March 14. In the days that followed, as the ship made its way through the southern latitudes’ stormy “Roaring Forties” and northward up the continent’s west coast, increasing numbers of passengers and crew developed the telltale flu-like symptoms of COVID-19. The ship was not permitted to dock anywhere in South America to disembark the ill, or the many seemingly healthy passengers who were in danger of falling ill, even though all public venues were shut down and passengers were confined to their cabins.
For a time, it was questionable whether Panama would allow the Zaandam to transit its canal to reach the big cruise ports and other facilities in Florida. Meanwhile, healthy passengers were transferred in a rare ship-to-ship tender operation to the Rotterdam, which was also initially denied passage. Panama eventually relented and both ships transited the canal early Monday to begin the journey to Florida.
But where in Florida? Holland America has a big presence at Port Everglades, which is a mere stone’s throw from one of Broward County’s leading hospitals, many vacant or near-vacant hotels, and the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Miami’s comparably large cruise port is much closer to the city’s downtown, but farther away from most of the other infrastructure that Fort Lauderdale offers. The smaller cruise terminal in Palm Beach County offers no obvious advantage over either of the cities to the south.
Much farther up the coast, Port Canaveral is about 50 miles from the nearest major facilities in the Orlando area. Jacksonville can handle large cruise ships and is reasonably close to the city’s hospitals and airport, yet removed from the city center. But Jacksonville is more than 300 miles north of Fort Lauderdale, possibly adding another day to the already traumatic journey.
To Florida’s politicians, the preferred answer to the dilemma is “none of the above.” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis demanded that disembarked passengers and crew – even those seemingly healthy – be federally quarantined for 14 days. Former governor and current Sen. Rick Scott also called for a full two-week quarantine of all passengers and crew. Current Gov. Ron DeSantis said on Fox News, “We cannot afford to have people who are not even Floridians dumped into South Florida using up those valuable resources.” In other words, like New Yorkers and other undesirables, the ships’ occupants should just keep out. Local opinion in Fort Lauderdale is mixed. But judging from opinion page letters and social media, residents seem to lean in the same direction as their political leaders.
My guess while writing this post on Tuesday, while the ships’ fate was uncertain, was that the Rotterdam would eventually be allowed to dock in South Florida. The Zaandam may be destined for the U.S. Navy base at Mayport, Florida instead. Mayport has its own 8,000-foot runway and can accommodate ships as large as aircraft carriers. It is about a 30-minute ride from the Jacksonville commercial airport. At some point, federal authorities may have to force the issue and make Floridians do what they should.
Since the virus that causes COVID-19 is already widely circulating in Florida, and Fort Lauderdale and most of nearby South Florida is under a strict lockdown, the threat of additional spread from the ships’ occupants is immaterial. That does not mean the fear of such spread is not a factor in local reaction; it is. But there is also a hoarding issue in play. Some Floridians think any vacant hospital bed and ventilator in the state ought to be reserved for residents who might need it later, not visitors (or even returning local cruise passengers) who may need one now.
If New Yorkers take that approach, I will be in big trouble if I happen to get sick despite my best efforts to isolate myself. Yet in spite of the crippling caseload already sweeping the metropolitan area, there is no doubt whatsoever that I will be treated like any other person in need, should the necessity arise while I am here.
Fort Lauderdale is a maritime city. Shipping, yachting and cruising are major employers. Recreational boating is embedded in the urban culture. Our local officials – and my neighbors – would do well to remember that there is a duty of rescue in international law, as well as maritime tradition. As a guide issued by the International Maritime Organization and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees puts it: “The shipmaster has an obligation to render assistance to those in distress at sea without regard to their nationality, status or the circumstances in which they are found.”
We Floridians are not shipmasters in the literal sense, but as a maritime community we have an obligation to help those in distress on the high seas. There are two distressed vessels desperately in need of aid and comfort right now. We ought to be working out how we can best render assistance, not how to keep them off our shores.