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 are checking their medical histories, examining them for symptoms and instructing 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.
As confusion and anxiety spread, the airport situation 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.
“Last night we saw [passenger] safety and security was seriously compromised and people were forced into conditions that are against CDC guidelines and totally unacceptable,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a news conference at the city’s O’Hare International Airport Sunday.
Without better communication, she warned, “you’re going to see more disasters like last night that are solely the responsibility of the federal government not listening.”
It did not help that the president’s error-filled Wednesday address announcing the sweeping new travel ban, soon to expand to the United Kingdom and Ireland, left many rushing to fly home immediately. Officials hurried to correct the president’s statement that “all travel” from Europe would grind to a halt, but the weekend mayhem spurred another scramble.
District resident Nik Kowsar, 50, said he was supposed to return home Tuesday from London but moved up his flight last night after seeing photos of passengers stuck in hours-long delays at O’Hare Saturday as they awaited screening.
There were not many empty seats, he said: “So many other people made that decision as well.”
The scenes at the airports — captured in an outpouring of angry social media posts — resembled the chaotic implementation in early 2017 of President Trump’s travel ban targeting citizens from predominantly Muslim countries, which triggered confusion and protests at U.S. airports as travelers from the Middle East were detained or sent back with almost no warning.
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,” Wolf said. “In these unprecedented times, we ask for your patience.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement Sunday that it “recognizes that the wait times experienced yesterday at some locations were unacceptable.”
“With this national emergency, there will unfortunately be times of disruption and increased processing times for travelers,” the statement said.
But lawmakers were sharply critical. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) called the long lines “unacceptable” in a late-night tweet, saying the backups “need to be addressed immediately.” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) tweeted of delays stretching up to eight hours, writing, “Admin was unprepared after Presidential ban on travel from Europe.” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Sunday wrote a letter to top officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the CDC asking what authorities are doing to “prevent the spread of this dysfunction.”
These crowds are waiting to get through customs which is under federal jurisdiction
— Governor JB Pritzker (@GovPritzker) March 15, 2020
Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, acknowledged the frustration over “longer than usual delays” but said in 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.”
Kowsar, the District resident who rushed home from London, said he was surprised the only question he encountered while passing through customs at Dulles International Airport was, “Do you have any health conditions to declare?”
“I thought they were going to be screening everyone and checking temperatures,” Kowsar said.
He and other passengers from the London flight said they didn’t encounter any longer than usual delays at customs. But a dozen flights from Europe and the United Kingdom are scheduled to arrive at Dulles after 3 p.m., when delays are more likely to occur.
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, Tex., said she stood in a customs line from 4 p.m. until after 7 p.m. Saturday after returning from a trip to Mexico.
“We’re all being herded in the same line standing side by side,” Lowe told WFAA-TV. “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.”
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 DFW Airport said in a statement Saturday night. “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 customs was “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.
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 night at midnight, officials said, bringing the total number of U.S.-travel-restricted countries in Europe to 28.
At Dulles International Airport outside Washington on Sunday, about one-third of travelers emerging from the customs area wore masks or had them strapped around their necks.
Jana Asher, a contractor for the United Nations returning home to western Pennsylvania from South Sudan, said she was surprised that the immigration line for U.S. citizens was longer than the one for noncitizens. She said she was traveling home via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as scheduled but had spoken with several other American passengers who had stepped up their flights after Trump announced the restrictions on travelers from Europe.
Asher, a statistics professor at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, said she plans to continue wearing a bandanna over her mouth and nose for the next 14 days to protect others in case she was exposed to the coronavirus during her international travel. One positive note: Because coronavirus is just hitting Africa, hand sanitizer there was still in ample supply, so she brought plenty home.
“I didn’t bring home toilet paper,” she said with a smile, “because it would be impossible to pack.”
Nick Miroff and Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.