Dominican Republic turns back cruise ship amid virus fears

AP News
February 27, 2020 - 4:47 pm
The upper deck pool area of the MSC Meraviglia cruise ship docked in Le Havre harbour, Normandy, France.

Thomas Padilla/AP Photo, File

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — A cruise ship heading to the Dominican Republic to disembark hundreds of passengers after a 14-day tour was turned back on Thursday because officials feared eight of those aboard showed potential symptoms of the Covid-19 virus, officials announced.

A joint statement by the Public Health Ministry and Port Authority said that the captain of the Braemar reported four Filipinos, two British citizens and two U.S. citizens were under medical observation for symptoms such as fever, coughing, or breathing difficulty.

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines said in an emailed statement that it had reported “a small number of influenza-like cases on board. Our medical team has now advised that they are all feeling better. No guests or crew are, or have been, displaying symptoms that are considered to be consistent with those of Coronavirus. ”

Officials said the ship was carrying 1,128 passengers and 384 crew members and the cruise line said it was "in discussions with the Dominican Ministry of Health and are awaiting advice on the next steps.”

The cruise line's website shows the ship was due to pick up another load of passengers and set off on a new cruise Thursday night.

“We have ordered that it returns to its destination,” Public Health Minister Rafael Sánchez Cárdenas said, indicating that passengers and crew were among those ill. He said the ship already had been barred by another port, which he did not specify.

Meanwhile, passengers on another vessel met with better luck in Mexico.

The MSC Meraviglia, turned away by two nations due to fears of the virus outbreak, docked at Mexico's Caribbean island of Cozumel on Thursday and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said passengers would be allowed to disembark,

López Obrador said Mexico had to act with “humanity”after the ship was refused entry at ports in Grand Cayman and Jamaica.

The cruise line had expressed frustration with the rejections, which came after it reported one crew member from the Philippines was sick with common seasonal flu. It said no passengers had shown evidence of the Covid-19 virus.

“The ship is being allowed to dock and the passengers, those who are aboard the cruise ship can disembark,” López Obrador said, adding that health inspections will be carried out.

“We cannot act with discrimination,” he said. “Imagine if a ship arrived and it wasn't even allowed to dock, and they were told, ‘Keep going on your way, see where you can dock.' That is inhuman.”

He added “we cannot close our ports, nor can we close our airports.”

“Imagine the desperation and everything it implies, almost 5,000 people on a ship and they cannot get off,” he said. “Why such backward attitudes?”

"We were supposed to go to Jamaica, they told us no. Then we were going to go to Cayman Islands, they told us no," said Pam Berman, a passenger on board from Philadelphia. 

Berman said throughout everything, they had plenty of food and water, but some folks were a little antsy.

"The morale is probably a little bit better, because they just announced we're all getting a 100% refund," Berman said.

The case of the Meraviglia illustrated the crisis of nerves over COVID-19 virus. Mexico has no confirmed cases and MSC Cruises said the crew member had only common seasonal flu, had been placed in isolation and had “nearly recovered.”

Local media showed a small knot of Cozumel residents near the cruise ship dock demanding that passengers not be allowed to disembark, citing fears about potential contagion or effects on the tourism-dependent economy.

Just minutes after López Obrador spoke Thursday, the governor of the Quintana Roo state, where Cozumel is located, confirmed the ship had docked, but said “no authorization has been given” yet for passengers to disembark.

Gov. Carlos Joaquin wrote that health inspections would have to be carried out first.

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KYW Newsradio's Justin Udo contributed to this report.