Ron DeSantis reverses decision to ban sick American cruise passengers from being “dumped” in Florida

Though DeSantis had a change of heart under pressure from Trump, the fate of hundreds of passengers remains unclear

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published April 2, 2020 11:36AM (EDT)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., relented to pressure from his own party to allow American cruise passengers infected with the coronavirus to disembark in the state, though it is unclear what will happen to the other passengers and crew.

The Zaandam and Rotterdam cruise ships, part of the Carnival Corporation's Holland America Line, are expected to arrive Thursday in Florida. There are more than 1,200 passengers and more than 1,100 crew members aboard the two ships, including at least nine people who are infected with the coronavirus. Four passengers have died, The Miami Herald reported, and more than 200 others have reported flu-like symptoms. The ships have been turned away by every country between Chile and the U.S., according to the report.

DeSantis first refused to accept any passengers on board except Floridians.

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

Florida had limited hospital capacity to deal with sick passengers, DeSantis claimed. But hundreds of the passengers on board are American citizens.

President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that Canada and the U.K. would accept their countries' citizens on the ships, but suggested he would work to allow the Americans to disembark.

"I'm going to do what's right not only for us but for humanity," he said. "These are two big ships, and they have a lot of very sick people."

DeSantis relented after Trump told him he would "like to see a solution," the governor told Fox News later Wednesday.

"We were concerned about a deluge into the hospitals, but I think it turns out that there will probably be some who will need to go," he said. "But it's very, very manageable, and the local hospital system thinks that they can handle it."

DeSantis also referred to a third ship, the Coral Princess, which is expected to arrive in Florida on Saturday with passengers who have reported flu-like symptoms.

"We've seen these cruise ships be big problems with this virus, and I know they're not sailing any new ones," he said. "But this is going to continue to be a problem, and so we want to make sure people are safe both on those ships but particularly on shore in places like the state of Florida."

Though the American passengers will be allowed to disembark, the company told The Herald that all crew members would remain on board. Will happen to the foreign passengers remains unclear, though Trump said medical teams were sent aboard the ships.

"They're in big trouble no matter where they're from," he said. "They're dying, so we have to do something — and the governor knows that, too."

The company urged officials to quickly develop a plan for those who will remain on board.

"We appreciate the support of President Trump in resolving the humanitarian plight of our guests," the company said in a statement. "Holland America Line calls for compassion and reason in the review and approval of our disembarkation plan by Florida officials."

The company added that 1,200 passengers were fit to travel home under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while fewer than 10 require treatment.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis told CNN that he would meet with the company to work out a solution.

"We want these ill people to find immediate medical assistance," he said. "We have to be comfortable knowing that they're being quarantined in such a way they don't infect the rest of the community."

"We were not against the ships docking in our community," he added. "The problem is that no protocol has been established yet to allow these folks to come off the ship. We are in a midst of a humanitarian crisis here."

The news comes as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Florida has skyrocketed in recent days. DeSantis on Wednesday finally issued a statewide stay-at-home order after weeks of pressure from members of both parties after the state's caseload doubled in three days.

DeSantis repeatedly rejected calls for a statewide lockdown and downplayed the risk, at one point even allowing state beaches to stay open during spring break.

"Some people think that the governor should just be a dictator and just order everyone in prison in their homes," he said last week. "And I don't think that would be an effective approach, but it's certainly not warranted in certain parts of the state."

But after the state reported 857 new hospitalizations and 85 deaths on Tuesday, DeSantis caved to pressure and issued a statewide order — though he left an exception for religious services.

There have been numerous cases in which dozens of people have been exposed to the coronavirus during church services. A Florida mega-church pastor was arrested last week after defying a county order by hosting a worship service with hundreds of parishioners.

"One read is that DeSantis is prioritizing religious practice over all else," Anthony Michael Kreis, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, tweeted. "The other is he's jeopardizing the lives of people of faith because of his ignorance and unwillingness to tell people the hard truth. I think there's plenty of reason to be irritated by the former from a constitutional perspective, but the latter — that's the real tragedy."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Coronavirus Covid-19 Donald Trump Florida Politics Ron Desantis