Thousands of travelers flying back to the U.S. from Europe before the novel coronavirus travel ban is enacted were forced to wait for hours in long crowded lines at arrival terminals. They were herded together despite the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for social distancing to mitigate the spread of the contagious virus. Travelers complained of a lack of hand sanitizer and rubber gloves at check points as well.
Posts on social media showing passengers packed tightly together at Chicago O’Hare International Airport prompted calls by a number of politicians including Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker who demanded on Twitter that President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence take action to address the crowds.
On Sunday, Pritzker told Meet the Press that it was clear the travel ban would result in a surge in air traffic and that the federal government should have increased both the number of immigration officials and CDC officials carrying out health screenings and they did neither of those.
“Last night as people were flooding into O’Hare airport, they were stuck in a small area, hundreds and hundreds of people and that’s exactly what you don’t want in this pandemic,” Pritzker said. “Today, it’s going to be even worse. There are a larger number of flights coming and they seem completely unprepared.” When asked if he had received any response from the government, he said, “Here’s what I got. I got a call at about 11 o'clock last night after that tweet from a White House staffer who yelled at me about the tweet.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infection disease expert, said on Fox News Sunday that “we would like to not see crowds like that.”
Fauci didn’t point any fingers, instead trying to send the message to Americans abroad that they do not need to rush back.
“It’s the nature of the problem. When you have a situation when people are in different countries, there are going to be restrictions. American citizens, their family, they can get back. They don’t need to immediately get back because they think they’re going to get left out,” he said on Meet the Press.
Asked if officials should be spacing out flights better, Fauci said on State of the Union, “I mean, I'm not going to make policy here with you, but if you can possibly lessen that crowding one way or the other, we should do it.”
Anger at the poor guidance to deal with an influx of travelers trying to beat the travel ban was echoed by a number of Democrats, including Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. “This is unacceptable, counterproductive and exactly the opposite of what we need to do to prevent #COVID19,” Duckworth tweeted. “The Trump Administration must send more support to O’Hare immediately.” Only Americans and green card holders are allowed to return to the U.S. Other travelers from Europe are required to land at one of 13 airports, where they will be subject to quarantine.
Similar scenes played out at Dallas-Fort Worth on Saturday as thousands of international travelers were penned up there, too, waiting between three and five hours to go through immigration controls before being screened by CDC officials.
On Sunday, travelers posted similar photos of tightly packed crowds with seemingly little infection-control measures at Dulles in Washington, D.C., and in New Orleans.
Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary Chad Wolf said the screenings take about a minute per passenger at the moment, though passengers must pass through immigration before picking up their luggage and finally going through customs.
“Right now we are working to add additional screening capacity and working with the airlines to expedite the process,” Wolf tweeted. “I understand this is very stressful. In these unprecedented times, we ask for your patience.”