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Authority: Stranded ships begin transiting Panama Canal

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Virus Outbreak Panama

The Zaandam cruise ship is anchored in the bay of Panama City, Friday, March 27, 2020. Several passengers have died aboard the cruise ship and a few people aboard the ship have tested positive for the new coronavirus, the cruise line said Friday, with hundreds of passengers unsure how long they will remain at sea. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

PANAMA CITY (AP) — The Panama Canal Authority said Sunday that two cruise ships carrying more than 1,800 passengers and crew — some infected with COVID-19 — stranded off the Central American country and hoping to reach port in Florida had begun the process of transiting the canal.

The announcement came after the passengers received mixed signals about their fate. While Panamanian officials said they would let the two ships transit the Panama Canal, the cruise company said it had not been given official permission and Fort Lauderdale's mayor said he didn't want it to dock near his city as planned, at least without extensive precautions.

Panama's Health Ministry announced Saturday that it would allow the Zaandam, which has been at sea since leaving Argentina March 7, to transit the canal, though no passengers or crew would be allowed to disembark. The independent Panama Canal Authority also issued a statement saying it was preparing to "facilitate the transit of the Zaandam through the waterway.”

On Sunday evening, the canal authority released a statement saying the transit process of the Zaandam and the Rotterdam - a sister ship - had begun. It did not say how long it would take, though ships normally take eight to 10 hours to transit the canal.

“All the biosecurity and operational measures will be taken for these transits in order to minimize the risks for Panama Canal personnel and their clients, as well as guarantee a safe maneuver,” the statement said.

The Zaandam had been stranded off Panama's coast and its operator, Holland America Lines, said Friday that four people aboard the ship had died — though the cause was not reported — and at least two had tested positive for COVD-19.

Canada's foreign affairs minister, Francois-Philippe Champagne, said late Saturday that his Panamanian counterpart had assured him the ship would be allowed through the canal en route to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There were 248 Canadians among the ship's 1,243 passengers and 586 crew before it reached Panama and offloading some passengers onto the Rotterdam, which the cruise company said would also make the transit.

But the ships' operator, Holland America Lines, said Sunday it had not yet received permission for the canal transit — nor to dock at Port Everglades, its intended destination.

The vessel was getting less-than-welcoming reception in Florida.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis issued a statement saying it was “deeply troubling” that the Zaandam might be headed toward his city and he suggested sending it to some Navy base elsewhere on the Eastern Seaboard.

If it does come to Port Everglades, he said, he said strict protocols should be put in place to separate passengers, hospitalize those who need it, quarantine Americans who appear healthy and send foreign nationals quickly to their own countries.

“Until I am fully briefed by the Trump administration and am comfortable with their plans, I cannot support the Zaandam docking in my community,” he added.

Administrators at Port Everglades, which is owned by Broward County, issued a statement Sunday saying Holland America Line has not yet received official approval to transit the Panama Canal, nor to enter Port Everglades.

“Should Holland America receive approval to transit the Panama Canal, it would take about three days for the ship to reach South Florida. Holland American must then submit a plan prior to arrival that addresses a long list of Unified Command requirements for entry into a Port.”

Holland America had sent the Rotterdam to rendezvous with the Zaandam off Panama and resupply it, and many apparently healthy passengers were transferred to that vessel.