Coronavirus screening causes 7-hour waits at US airports

Robert Chiarito, Mitch Smith and Mariel Padilla, The New York Times

Posted at Mar 16 2020 10:10 AM

Coronavirus screening causes 7-hour waits at US airports 1
Passengers arrive at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, March 15, 2020. As the federal government rushed to implement President Trump’s restrictions on travel from Europe, chaos ensued at some of America’s biggest airports on Saturday. Joshua Lott, The New York Times

CHICAGO — There were cryptic and confusing announcements in midair. Long lines to clear customs. And waits of as long as 7 hours in crowds with other travelers.

As the federal government rushed on Saturday to implement President Donald Trump’s restrictions on travel from Europe, part of an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus, chaos ensued at some of America’s biggest airports.

In Dallas, travelers posted photos on Twitter of long, winding lines. In New York, customs agents in paper and plastic masks boarded a flight from Paris. And in Chicago, where travelers reported standing in line for hours, Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois tagged Trump in a series of angry tweets about the long waits, saying, “The federal government needs to get its s@#t together. NOW.”

“They gave us water and snacks but no updates on how long or what stages we had to go through,” said Gabrielle Osterman, a college student who missed her connecting flight in Chicago after a seven-hour wait to clear customs. Osterman, who had traveled from Frankfurt via London, said officials asked about her symptoms and took her temperature before giving her a mask to wear.

Paige Hardy, an American student who left behind her graduate studies in London because she feared a broader travel ban, said a series of confusing announcements in the air and upon landing in Dallas led to alarm on the plane late Saturday. She posted a video on Twitter of travelers being asked to raise their hands if they had been in mainland Europe. Because of the delay, she also missed her connecting flight.

“It truly felt like an apocalyptic scenario,” said Hardy, who left many of her belongings in England and was unsure if she would be able to return.

The confusion at America’s international travel hubs came as concern spread about the coronavirus pandemic, which has been identified in more than 2,700 people in the United States and has prompted Trump to declare a national emergency.

On Saturday, days after announcing restrictions on travel from mainland Europe, Trump said foreigners in the United Kingdom and Ireland would soon be barred from traveling to the United States. American citizens, legal permanent residents and their family members under the age of 21 who have visited the European countries in the past two weeks are allowed to return to the United States, but airlines will re-book their flights to one of 13 designated airports.

Under the new screening rules, when travelers arrive at a designated airport, they are to be interviewed by a customs officer, who will also review the person’s travel history using a Homeland Security database. The officer will ask them about their current medical condition. If they don’t show symptoms, they will be asked to quarantine in their homes for 14 days. Depending on their symptoms and previous medical history, travelers could be subject to an additional screening by a medical professional at the airport. They could also be subject to a federal quarantine.

“At this time, we are working quickly with our partners to operationalize a plan which will outline where these travelers will be routed and what the screening process will be,” Marcus Hubbard, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said.

The Department of Homeland Security referred an interview request about Saturday’s delays to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, whose officials did not immediately respond. Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, said on Twitter that he was aware of the delays and was working to add staffing.

“I understand this is very stressful,” Wolf posted. “In these unprecedented times, we ask for your patience.”

At O’Hare, the process was clearly not working. Even local airport officials urged their federal counterparts to add staff.

Muhammad Hamda, a 48-year-old Florida resident who had been visiting relatives in France, said it took him more than five hours to get through customs in Chicago. He said airport workers provided water and snacks, but he was annoyed because the delay caused him to miss his connecting flight to Tampa, Florida.

“It’s a big mess,” Hamda said. “Now we have to spend the night at the airport until our flight home tomorrow morning.”

Tim Clancy, 20, landed in Chicago on Saturday evening after returning from a study program in Greece. Clancy said he had been waiting in line for nearly three hours and still had a long way to go. He was surrounded by hundreds of other passengers also waiting to get their temperatures taken.

“I’m not sure what this is doing to curb any coronavirus,” Clancy said in a phone interview while he waited. “If anyone had it, it would spread to everyone around with so many people jammed in such close quarters.”