KINGMAN – Worrying about family members in the U.S. during the Coronavirus pandemic is stressful enough without having to worry about those 3,500 miles away off the coast of Panama.
Kingman resident Charles Black is asking Arizona and Alaska lawmakers to help get his parents and other Americans back to U.S. soil safely after the Coronavirus began affecting passengers and crew in the middle of a cruise from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The trip began March 7 and scheduled to end March 28, but travelers are still being quarantined until further screenings become available.
On Saturday, Black, an Army Veteran, spearheaded a movement to urge lawmakers to secure a safe return of his father, retired Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Chuck Black III and stepmother, Janice Black, of Anchorage, Alaska, and other passengers from a humanitarian crisis happening aboard the MS Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship currently sitting off the coast of Panama. The ship has a crew of 615 and passenger complement of up to 1,243 passengers. Four people have died and more are becoming sick by the day. Several countries have denied offloading passengers in their territories.
Black has emailed a letter to U.S. Senators Krysten Sinema and Martha McSally. U.S. Representative for Arizona District 4 Paul Gosar. U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Don Sullivan, and U.S. Rep. Don Young were also contacted in Alaska via email.
“My parents are in their late 60s, in the risk category for the Coronavirus,” Black wrote. “The longer the passengers are stranded at sea without access to proper medical care, the greater the chance this story ends in more tragedy.”
All 1,243 passengers were quarantined in their staterooms March 22 when 13 guests and 29 crew members reported to the ship’s medical center with influenza-like symptoms. The measures have not been effective. As of March 27, 53 guests (4 percent of the passengers) and 85 crew (14 percent) have reported to Zaandam’s medical center with influenza-like symptoms. Four people have died.
The MS Rotterdam, a sister-ship to the Zaandam, has been ordered to assist relief efforts underway in Panama Harbor and delivered medical supplies (e.g., masks, COVID-19 tests) and additional staff. There have been conflicting accounts from passengers that medical supplies aboard the ship are limited or unavailable.
“I have serious concerns that unless they are able to access a port and get the sick to hospitals soon, there will be further casualties,” he said.
Black’s parents take several cruises a year, some up to 30 days. They recently took four back-to-back cruises from Alaska to Florida. Black himself is a cruise veteran, going on up to seven a year. He and his wife, Emily, were scheduled for a March 27 trip, but it was canceled as all cruise lines suspended operations for 30 days. Other trips are also in limbo. He has a good idea of the conditions his parents and other passengers are experiencing.
Communication with the outside world is limited. The Black’s have access to English-Language television, but the internet, WiFi and cellphone service is spotty and unpredictable. The crew hurriedly delivers food to each stateroom. The rations are normal and healthy but plans to dine in the steakhouse or buffets aren’t happening. Potable and bottled water is available. Passengers were allowed to visit the outside decks once for fresh air but have since been confined to their rooms. Hygiene items are readily available.
“I don’t think we need to be concerned about running out of supplies,” Chuck said as part of a March 29 interview for Good Morning America. “Rotterdam should’ve been resupplied when in Puerto Vallarta and they came to Panama with just crew members on board.”
Shipboard laundry services are down while crews focus on transferring passengers between ships. The Blacks were lucky enough to get a stateroom with a balcony aboard the Rotterdam, do their laundry by hand in a sink and hang it to dry on the balcony deck.
“The crew is trying to limit how much they interact with the passengers,” Janice added.
The couple is holding up well mentally.
“The most obnoxious parts are having to do laundry by hand and Jan not having any Coke Zero,” Seymour said via email, the Black’s primary mode of communication.
As for the atmosphere among the passengers is uncertain and confusing. They know the crews are trying to assist, they just don’t know when or where they’ll be able to disembark.
“It’s not like the crew doesn’t want to help,” Black said. “It’s just that none of the countries want to take the passengers in.”
The Black’s cruise comes at a hefty price tag as well. The recent 31-day cruise ran nearly $8,000 not including taxes, port charges and port visits. Black said many travelers had up to $30,000 invested in the March cruise. That money could be lost since the trips had not been canceled by the cruise line by the time they set sail.
“This is a ‘bucket-list cruise,” Black said. “There’s a part of the rip where you can take a helicopter ride to Antarctica.”
The Blacks and more than 300 American citizens are desperately trying to get home, but the path has been filled with numerous obstacles and diplomatic challenges. The Panamanian government has approved passage through the Panama Canal, but permission to dock is unclear. According to a March 26 article in the Coral Springs Time in Broward County, there’s still opposition from Florida officials about letting the ship disembark its passengers on Florida soil.
The ship departed from Buenos Aires, Argentina on March 7, before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Within a week the crew and passengers realized continuing the cruise would be a potential health hazard and Holland America Lines started exploring options to get everyone home to safety. There was a plan to disembark the passengers and fly everyone home from Punta Arenas, Chile on March 14, but then the Chilean government closed its borders and the ship had no choice but to continue sailing north. Since then every country along the ship’s route has closed its ports to the ship, and just yesterday Panamanian authorities denied the ship passage through the Panama Canal.
“I am asking everyone to urge our government officials and anyone else who may be able to help get my parents and everyone aboard the MS Zaandam (and Rotterdam) get home safe and sound,” Black said. “I’m praying that this story has a happy ending, as the world could really use one right about now.”
Updates will be provided as they become available.