Dominican Republic turns away cruise ship over coronavirus fears

SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - Port authorities in the Dominican Republic on Thursday turned away a cruise ship on a tour of the Caribbean and Central America over fears some passengers might have the coronavirus.

Health Minister Rafael Sanchez Cardenas said a medical team approached the U.K.-based Fred Olsen Cruise Lines ship and checked those who presented symptoms. Cardenas did not specify whether the medical team had detected cases of coronavirus.

“To avoid risks, it’s better to take precautions,” Victor Gomez, director of the port authority, said on local television.

Fred Olsen Cruise Lines said the decision was an “overreaction.”

“We believe that this was as a result of a small number of influenza-like cases on board,” Olsen said in a statement, adding that the onboard medical team had advised that all eight passengers concerned were subsequently feeling better.

“No guests or crew are, or have been, displaying symptoms that are considered to be consistent with those of coronavirus,” it said in a statement.

Cruise ships have been in the spotlight amid the global spread of the coronavirus from its initial outbreak in China. Four people traveling on Carnival Corp's CCL.N Diamond Princess have died from the coronavirus with confirmed cases on the ship approaching 700 since it docked at a Japanese port on Feb. 3.

Earlier this week, Jamaica and Grand Cayman denied passengers of an MSC Cruises ship entry because of fears that one crew member, who has since been diagnosed with common seasonal flu, might be infected with the virus.

Braemer had been scheduled to drop anchor at La Romana, 125 kilometers (78 miles) east of the capital, as part of 14-day cruise across the Western Caribbean and Central America.

It departed on Feb. 13 from Barbados, passed through several Caribbean islands before arriving in the Dominican Republic from the Franco-Dutch island of Sint-Martin.

Fred Olsen said Braemer had set sail fo an alternative Caribbean port and staff were liaising with airlines to arrange travel for passengers who were due to disembark at La Romana.

The company added it had been “operating a raised level of sanitization across its fleet” and employing “non-invasive screening measures” for guests embarking and those re-joining the ship from overland tours.

China has so far been hardest hit by the coronavirus, with nearly 80,000 infections and more than 2,700 deaths, according to WHO figures. But the virus has spread to 46 other countries, where around 3,700 cases and 57 deaths have been reported.

Reporting by Ezequiel Abiu Lopez; Writing by Stefanie Eschenbacher; editing by Jane Wardell