US authorities were finalizing a plan on Tuesday to allow a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship, the Zaandam, to dock in Florida after its operator warned that more passengers may die if it is left out at sea.
"Already four guests have passed away and I fear other lives are at risk," Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America Line, said in a column published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper.
The Zaandam, which left Buenos Aires on March 7, was originally meant to dock in Fort Lauderdale on April 7 at the conclusion of a month-long cruise.
After a coronavirus outbreak on board, it was decided to cut the voyage short.
But, since a brief stop in Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia on March 14, it has been turned away from several South American ports over fears of contagion.
Holland America has asked for permission for the Zaandam and its sister ship, the Rotterdam -- which was dispatched from San Diego to its aid -- to dock at Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades terminal.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis expressed opposition Monday, saying that he did not want sick passengers "dumped" in his state, which has more than 6,000 coronavirus cases already.
But Fort Lauderdale port authorities and members of the Broward County Board of Commissioners appeared inclined Tuesday to allow the ships to dock, possibly as early as Thursday afternoon.
William Burke, chief maritime officer at Carnival Corp., which owns Holland America, outlined a plan to the commissioners for healthy passengers to disembark and then be sent home on charter flights.
Sick passengers would remain aboard and be treated until they are well enough to travel, Burke told a meeting of the Broward County Board of Commissioners broadcast online.
"We have several ventilators, extra oxygen," Burke said. "We have the right equipment."
The county commissioners appeared to be prepared to allow the plan to go ahead pending its approval by members of a so-called "Unified Command", made up of state and local authorities and others including the US Coast Guard and US Centers for Disease Control.
"Get these people off the ship as quickly as possible," said Broward County commissioner Barbara Sharief. "They deserve to be treated humanely."
Broward County Mayor Dale Holness said a final decision would be taken on Thursday morning pending the approval of the plan.
President Donald Trump said Tuesday evening he would intervene and speak to the governor soon to find a solution.
"I'm going to do what's right. Not only for us but for humanity," he told a new conference.
- 'Compassion' -
Ashford, the Holland America president, said a total of 1,243 passengers and 1,247 crew members were stranded at sea on the Zaandam and Rotterdam.
There are 305 US citizens and 247 Canadians among the passengers.
Ashford said that as of Monday, 76 passengers and 117 crew members on the Zaandam had influenza-like illness. Burke said they include nine who have tested positive for COVID-19.
"These are unfortunate souls unwittingly caught up in the fast-changing health, policy and border restrictions that have rapidly swept the globe," he said.
"Nations are justifiably focused on the COVID-19 crisis unfolding before them," Ashford said. "But they've turned their backs on thousands of people left floating at sea.
"What happened to compassion and help thy neighbor?"
Hundreds of healthy passengers were transferred from the Zaandam to the Rotterdam and the ships passed through the Panama Canal over the weekend to head for Fort Lauderdale.
Passengers have been self-isolating in their cabins on the Zaandam since March 22, according to Holland America.