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Ships with people from ill-fated cruise beg Florida to dock
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By ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON undefined

MIAMI (AP) — Two ships carrying passengers and crew from an ill-fated South American cruise are pleading with Florida officials to let them carry off the sick and dead, but Gov. Ron DeSantis says Florida's health care resources are already stretched too thin.

As the Zaandam and its sister ship the Rotterdam make for Florida, passengers confined to their rooms are anxious for relief, hoping DeSantis will change his mind and allow them to disembark despite confirmed coronavirus cases aboard. 

The governor  said he has been in contact with the Coast Guard and the White House about diverting them, and local officials were meeting Tuesday to decide whether to let them dock at Broward County's Port Everglades cruise ship terminal, where workers who greet passengers were among Florida's first confirmed coronavirus cases.

Holland America said the Rotterdam took on nearly 1,400 people who appear to be healthy, leaving 450 guests and 602 crew members on the Zaandam, including more than 190 who said they are sick. More than 300 U.S. citizens are on both ships combined.

"We cannot afford to have people who are not even Floridians dumped into South Florida using up those valuable resources," DeSantis told Fox News. "We view this as a big big problem and we do not want to see people dumped in Southern Florida right now."

Holland America President Orlando Ashford penned an opinion column in the South Florida Sun Sentinel to plead with officials and residents to let the passengers disembark.

"Already four guests have passed away and I fear other lives are at risk," Ashford wrote. "The COVID-19 situation is one of the most urgent tests of our common humanity. To slam the door in the face of these people betrays our deepest human values." 

With authorities in country after country sealing borders and imposing quarantines in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Zaandam and then its sister ship became pariahs. Passengers were asked to keep their rooms dark and leave their drapes closed as they passed through the Panama Canal on Sunday night after days of wrangling with local authorities.

Laura Gabaroni and her husband Juan Huergo, of Orlando, had wanted to explore the southernmost tip of South America for years — to see the penguins on the Falkland Islands and the glacial landscapes of the Strait of Magellan. But their vacation turned harrowing as countries shunned them and people fell ill.

"It's been a trying time, especially because of the many ups and downs we've seen along the way," said Gabaroni. "We are unable to leave our rooms, haven't had fresh air in days."

At least two of the four deaths on the Zaandam were caused by the coronavirus, according to Panamanian authorities. The company said eight others have tested positive for COVID-19, and that most of the passengers and crew on both ships appear to be in good health. 

Gabaroni and hundreds of others who were fever-free and not showing any symptoms were transferred to the Rotterdam, which replenished the Zaandam with supplies and staff last week.

The Zaandam originally departed from Buenos Aires on March 7 — a day before the U.S. State Department issued an advisory to avoid cruise travel and before any substantial restrictions were in place in Florida. DeSantis declared a state of emergency in the state two days later.

The ship originally was scheduled to travel to San Antonio, Chile, and then depart on March 21 for a 20-day cruise to arrive in Fort Lauderdale in early April. But beginning March 15, the Zaandam was denied entry by South American ports, even before passengers reported their first flu-like symptoms on March 22. 

Canal administrator Ricaurte Vásquez said Panama allowed them through for humanitarian reasons, but won't make another exception for vessels with positive coronavirus cases.

Passenger Emily Spindler Brazell, of Tappahannock, Virginia, said the company has been accommodating, offering extravagant meals, wine and unlimited phone calls — but they have to stay in their rooms, avoiding any contact with others.

"The captain said something like, 'This is not a trip anymore. This is not a cruise. This is a humanitarian mission,'" said Brazell, who was transferred to the Rotterdam on Saturday. 

Gabaroni, a 48-year-old technical writer, wrote a letter to DeSantis imploring him to let them off the ships.

"Florida continues to receive flights from New York, and it allowed spring break gatherings to go on as planned. Why turn their backs on us?" Gabaroni said.

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This story has been edited to correct the spelling of Zaandam throughout.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.