Minnesota couple fights illness, waits for cruise to end after fellow passengers die

Holland America's cruise ship Zaandam
Holland America's cruise ship Zaandam is seen off the coast of Panama City, Panama, on Friday. Four passengers have died aboard the ship, while dozens of others have flu-like symptoms.
Luis Acosta | AFP via Getty Images

A northern Minnesota couple and around 400 passengers remain stuck on a cruise ship with no idea of when or where they’ll dock. Four people aboard Holland America’s Zaandam have died, hundreds of others have fallen ill, and at least two have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Valerie Myntti and Frank Sherman, of Ely, Minn., flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in late February. After sightseeing, they boarded the Zaandam on March 7. It was meant to be a monthlong cruise to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with more than a dozen calls at ports in South and Central America.

Myntti said their third stop wound up being the last time she and her fellow passengers would set foot on land. After an excursion in Punta Arenas, Chile, on March 14, she said the passengers were told the cruise was suspended because ports in South America were closed to cruise ships.

A week later, the crew abruptly canceled a black-tie event after some aboard the Zaandam began reporting flu-like symptoms.

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“They said they were very sorry to do this, but to control the spread of whatever influenza-like respiratory thing was going on, that we would need to be confined into our stateroom,” Myntti said.

At the start of the cruise, there were more than 1,200 passengers and nearly 600 staff aboard the ship. But over the weekend, two-thirds of the guests were transferred to a Holland America sister ship, the Rotterdam. The company said this was meant to lighten the crew’s workload, not to separate the healthy from the sick.

From the Zaandam, Myntti said they’re being treated well, and the captain is doing his best to keep passengers informed about the evolving situation. But she and her husband have been allowed out of their small, windowless stateroom only once in eight days. They have to wear a mask even when picking up their meals from outside the door.

“It would be nice to see some sunshine,” Sherman said.

“We nap throughout the day. We watch cooking shows. We journal. We do all kinds of stuff. Our emotions run the gamut from being hopeful and still excited down to despair and wonderment at this situation,” said Myntti.

Valerie Myntti (left) and her husband Frank Sherman
Valerie Myntti (left) and her husband Frank Sherman, both of Ely, Minn., hold a copy of the Ely Echo on board the cruise ship Zaandam.
Courtesy of Valerie Myntti

Neither is feeling 100 percent. Myntti said she’s had a fever off and on, and has done the majority of talking via FaceTime with friends, family and reporters because her husband has a cough.

The Zaandam spent several days at anchor off the west coast of Panama as the cruise line negotiated with officials to let the ship pass through the canal. Myntti and Sherman watched what was supposed to be a highlight of their trip in their room via closed-circuit TV.

The Zaandam is in the Caribbean heading north but it may not be able to dock in Florida. Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said he doesn’t want the ship at Port Everglades without stringent quarantine procedures. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Fox News on Monday that his state can’t handle more potential COVID-19 cases.

“We cannot afford to have people who are not even Floridians dumped into south Florida using up those valuable resources. We view this as a big big problem,” the governor said.

Though she’s desperate to leave the Zaandam, or at least know where and when she’ll disembark, Myntti said she acknowledges the fears of Florida’s political leaders.

“Both the politicians in Broward County and the governor are there to protect the health and well-being of Floridians. And so, honestly I understand where they’re coming from — especially when they may be the next epicenter of the coronavirus spread,” she said.

But Myntti hopes there’s a solution that both protects the health of those on shore and gets much needed help to those stuck aboard the Zaandam.