Airports around the country were thrown into chaos Saturday night as workers scrambled to roll out the Trump administration’s hastily arranged health screenings for travelers returning from Europe.
Scores of anxious passengers said they encountered jam-packed terminals, long lines and hours of delays as they waited to be questioned by health authorities at some of the busiest travel hubs in the United States.
The administration announced the “enhanced entry screenings” Friday as part of a suite of travel restrictions and other strategies aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Passengers on flights from more than two dozen countries in Europe are being routed through 13 U.S. airports, where workers check their medical histories, examine them for symptoms and instruct them to self-quarantine.
But shortly after taking effect, the measures designed to prevent new infections in the United States created the exact conditions that facilitate the spread of the highly contagious virus, with throngs of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in bottlenecks that lasted late into the night.
“AT THIS MOMENT, HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE ARRIVING FROM NUMEROUS COUNTRIES ARE JAMMED TOGETHER IN A SINGLE SERPENTINE LINE VAGUELY SAID TO BE ‘FOR SCREENING,'” read a tweet from Tracy Sefl, who wrote that she waited for several hours to be screened at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
“Authorities are going to have to deal with the ramifications of the breakdown of whatever this system is supposed to be,” she wrote. “Not to mention needless exposure risks from containing thousands of passengers like this.”
As confusion and anxiety spread, the debacle threatened to deepen the coronavirus crisis for the Trump administration, which has struggled to mount a coherent response to the pandemic or convey a consistent message to the public about what the federal government is doing to mitigate the outbreak.
The scenes at the airports – captured in an outpouring of angry social media posts – resembled the botched implementation in early 2017 of President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting citizens from predominantly Muslim countries, which triggered chaos and protests at U.S. airports as travelers from the Middle East were detained or sent home with almost no warning.
This is the scene at O’Hare airport. The traveler who took the photo said it’s a 6-hour wait for bags then on to customs for 2-4 more of waiting in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. Police are handing out water and disinfectant wipes. @fly2ohare #ord #coronavirus #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/UTx9E0nj1s
— Brooke Geiger McDonald (@BrookeGMcDonald) March 15, 2020
In a tweet posted after midnight – several hours after reports of clogged terminals started circulating – acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf acknowledged the backup and said the Department of Homeland Security was trying to add screening capacity and help airlines expedite the process.
“I understand this is very stressful. In these unprecedented times, we ask for your patience,” Wolf said. “It currently takes ~60 seconds for medical professionals to screen each passenger. We will be increasing capacity but the health and safety of the American public is first & foremost.”
Relief was slow to come for those stuck in the standstill.
Liz Hoyer, a 46-year-old teacher in Texas, said she was nervous for her elderly parents, who were caught in the thick crowd at O’Hare. Trump announced the U.S. ban on travel from most of Europe while her parents were still in the air on their way to Germany. They booked the earliest flight they could back to O’Hare, one of the only U.S. airports still accepting European flights.
Hoyer worried that the clogged situation at the airport could expose them to infection. “The last thing Mom texted me, a few minutes ago,” she said, “was that they were safer in Germany than they are in this crowd.”
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the long lines “unacceptable” in a late-night tweet, saying the backups “need to be addressed immediately.”
These crowds are waiting to get through customs which is under federal jurisdiction
— Governor JB Pritzker (@GovPritzker) March 15, 2020
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., tweeted shortly after that he was in contact with Pritzker about delays for O’Hare arrivals stretching up to eight hours.
“Admin was unprepared after Presidential ban on travel from Europe,” he said.
Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, acknowledged the frustration over “longer than usual delays” but said in a series of early-Sunday tweets that “in several airports we’re seeing an immediate improvement.”
“We appreciate the patience of the traveling public as we deal with this unprecedented situation,” Morgan wrote. “We’re continuing to balance our efficiencies with ensuring the health and safety of all American citizens through enhanced medical screening. … Nothing is more important than the safety, health and security of our citizens.”
At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, travelers spent hours in the cramped terminal waiting to fill out questionnaires from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dorothy Lowe, of Longview, Texas, said she stood in a customs line from 4 p.m. until after 7 p.m. Saturday evening after returning from a trip to Mexico.
“We’re all being herded in the same line standing side-by-side,” Lowe told WFAA. “I’m less concerned about having to stand here for the amount of time that I am, and more concerned about where the people are traveling from that are around me and what they may or may not have been exposed to.”
Travelers reported similar problems at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. “Just waiting in a very long line with thousands of people to clear Customs at JFK T4,” one user wrote on Twitter. “Not sure who’s really taking things seriously.”
— jake vinson (@vjake20) March 15, 2020
As the delays stretched into the night, airports asked passengers to stay calm.
“We ask for your patience as CBP/CDC agents are conducting enhanced screening for passengers, which may cause additional delays,” the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport said in a Saturday night statement. “These measures are important for the health and safety of all.”
“Thank you for yr patience,” O’Hare tweeted to one person describing a six-hour wait for bags followed by several hours more in “shoulder-to-shoulder crowds.” The airport acknowledged that customs is “taking longer than usual” because of the enhanced screenings.
“We’ve strongly encouraged our federal partners to increase staffing to meet demand,” O’Hare said.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said she would respond to The Washington Post’s inquiries but did not immediately provide comment late Saturday night.
The scenes mirrored some of the mayhem in European airports after Trump late last week suspended travel from most of the continent.
The travel restrictions that spurred the new screening measures are set to broaden. The United States will also be banning travel from the United Kingdom and Ireland beginning Monday at midnight, officials said, bringing the total number of U.S. travel-restricted countries in Europe to 28.
Hoyer, the teacher from Texas, said she learned of her parents’ predicament at O’Hare early Saturday evening. Her mother, Maggie Hoyer, texted a family group chat with a picture of “just this mess of crowd.”
That was around 4 p.m.
A few hours later, Maggie Hoyer texted again to say airport officials had told her that she and her husband would be waiting for at least another three hours.
Airport staff are handing out water and candy, Maggie Hoyer told her daughter in the family chat. Officials are also insisting that the wait is for passengers’ own good, meant in part to allow for health screenings.
“It’s so frustrating,” Liz Hoyer said. “And I’m worried – they’re relatively healthy, but they’re in their 70s, so I really wish it was a situation they were not in.”