It Will Haunt History

Cruise ships are shown docked at PortMiami, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Cruise ships are docked at PortMiami, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
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Something very, very bad is happening today in Florida with the Holland America Zaandam cruise ship. Many terrible things are happening around us now. But here I am talking about a sort of willful malice or abandonment that is a deliberate decision, something that I think may haunt the decision-makers even if the loss of life is only a tiny fraction of what is unfolding across the country.

The Zaandam is approaching Florida and appears to be in the midst of another ship-wide outbreak like ships that came to port in Japan and Oakland, California. The current report is that 190 guests and crew have flu-like symptoms; eight have tested positive for COVID-19; four guests have died since the ship left Buenos Aires on March 7th.

In recent days Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has said he will not allow the ship to make port in Florida. The state has enough of a crisis on its own without taking hundreds of cruise ship passengers into its hospitals or quarantine, he argues.

Let’s first recognize that these are very real concerns. DeSantis has been cavalier about the crisis in general. But every state will have to marshal critical resources for its residents. Getting a few hundred more people, a substantial percentage of whom may be sick, only complicates an already difficult situation. People in Broward County will rightly or wrongly be afraid of introducing more of the disease to their community. But refusing permission to dock amounts to consigning these ships to becoming floating death traps. This morning the US Coast Guard ordered the Zaandam and other cruise ships to remain sequestered on the water “indefinitely.” In other words, they’re not allowed to dock anywhere. Ride it out on the water, as the President might say.

Given the close coordination between DeSantis and President Trump I wonder if the Coast Guard decision is being driven by that political relationship.

I can’t think of any way to capture this other than to call it criminal. The key here is that it is taking advantage of these ships being in a sort of international limbo. You can’t turn people away at a hospital if they’re in critical need. But these people aren’t in the United States. They are also foreign-flagged vessels, even though in practice they are owned and operated in the United States.

Late this afternoon Gov. DeSantis said he would allow the 49 Floridians to come off the ship. But not the others. That’s great news for those 49 Floridians. Florida Congressman Vern Buchanan tweeted his appreciation, while noting that he contacted White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to help make this happen. But the decision just cast in higher relief how wrong this is.

There are about two hundred and fifty other Americans on the ship. What about them? This amounts to a natural disaster, which is inherently federal. Of course there are hundreds of other foreign nationals, mostly from Canada, the UK and other countries in Europe. The suggestion from the Coast Guard and Florida officials is that they should seek port and assistance in the country they’re flagged under, which in this case means the Bahamas. That amounts to a sick joke. There’s a certain just dessert for the operators, who choose to flag their vessels in other countries and seek tax preference domicile abroad. But that’s not something you can hold against the passengers.

This clearly requires a federal response. I’m not sure precisely what the solution is. All of these people would need to be quarantined. It’s a big, dangerous, expensive task, much as it was for the other ship that eventually docked in Oakland. It’s complicated. I’m sure it will involve a lot of resources. Maybe it can’t be done immediately or quickly. But it’s simply not okay for the state of Florida or the US federal government to say not our problem, which is what now appears to be happening.

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