There was chaos at international arrivals halls in airports across the United States on Saturday, as President Donald Trump’s hastily ordered European travel ban took effect, and passengers were forced to endure long waits in crowded spaces as federal agents appear to have been overwhelmed by orders to screen travelers for coronavirus.
— Katy Loves Soil (@katyslittlefarm) March 14, 2020
While journalists had no access to the secure parts of airports under the control of Homeland Security, travelers arriving from Europe shared updates and images of huge crowds packed into narrow passageways at airports in Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, New York, and Washington, D.C.
— Chelsie Noel (@chelsienoel_) March 15, 2020
— jake vinson (@vjake20) March 15, 2020
It occurred to many passengers, and loved ones waiting for them, that their waits of four to six hours in packed terminals meant that the federal government was responsible for forcing Americans essentially ordered home by the president into conditions that were the exact opposite of the recommended guidance for stopping the spread of infection.
My son landed at O’Hare after an abrupt end to study abroad. He’s been standing in this pack of people for an hour while waiting to have his temp taken. If he’s not sick now, odds are he will be soon. #coronavirus #travelban #SocialDistancing pic.twitter.com/RMo6SFx1SM
— Christina Clancy (@christi_clancy) March 15, 2020
Immigration official just informed us that we are waiting here because they are doing what the president wants. O'Hare has been the only issue. Paris and Heathrow were smooth. But here we are following instructions from a fool. #OHare #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/ZhYCGZ6FDE
— Katy Loves Soil (@katyslittlefarm) March 14, 2020
The images of packed American airports stood in stark contrast to scenes from Italy, where even people waiting to buy masks at a local pharmacy in Siena on Friday maintained a distance of at least six feet from the person in front of them.
This is what social distancing looks like when it is taken seriously. Video from the Italian city of Siena on Friday, when a local pharmacy had masks for sale and customers lined up outside, standing two meters apart down the street. via @CorrierediSiena https://t.co/dSF9BK9uv5 pic.twitter.com/6OIRZkfap2
— Robert Mackey (@RobertMackey) March 15, 2020
Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, was outraged by the crowding at O’Hare and put the blame squarely on the “incompetence” of the president and Homeland Security’s failure to deploy additional Customs and Border Patrol agents.
This is unacceptable. The reactionary, poorly planned travel ban has left thousands of travelers at ORD forced into even greater health risk. @realdonaldtrump and @CBP: no one has time for your incompetence. Fully staff our airport right now, and stop putting Americans in danger. https://t.co/gswIaHwelx
— Archived: Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot (@mayorlightfoot) March 15, 2020
J.B. Pritzker, the governor of Illinois, tweeted at Trump that the passengers forced to crowd together were under federal jurisdiction.
These crowds are waiting to get through customs which is under federal jurisdiction
— Governor JB Pritzker (@GovPritzker) March 15, 2020
“The federal government,” Pritzker added bluntly, “needs to get its s@#t together. NOW.”
Airport officials in Chicago confirmed that the long delays were caused by a lack of federal agents to carry out the health checks mandated by the president three days ago. “We’ve strongly encouraged our federal partners to increase staffing to meet demand,” a message on O’Hare’s official Twitter feed read.
At John F. Kennedy International airport in New York, one traveler reported “only six of the 60 available processing stations open” at customs.
“DHS is aware of the long lines for passengers who are undergoing increased medical screening requirements,” Trump’s acting Homeland Security secretary, Chad Wolf acknowledged on Twitter. “Right now we are working to add additional screening capacity and working with the airlines to expedite the process.”
“We will be increasing capacity,” Wolf promised, without explaining why no one thought that adequate staffing might be necessary before the health of thousands of Americans was put at risk on Saturday.
The latest failing by the federal government Trump nominally heads, but appears unable to actually run, is particularly galling since this is not the first poorly thought-out travel ban he has imposed that prompted chaos at America’s airports.
And there was anecdotal evidence that all of the waiting was very close to pointless.
“The screening consisted of taking down our information on a form and taking our temperatures,” one passenger in Washington reported after two hours of waiting in line.
Another, who received a message during her flight from London to Dallas that the president had suddenly added the United Kingdom to the list of European countries travel would be restricted from, described the screening she and thousands of others waited so long for as far from rigorous.
Just to summarize what “extra screening” looked like: voluntarily announcing your been to Europe and checking a box to say if you had symptoms. No one checked to see if I was lying. No one checked my temperature.
— essentially just survivor commentary (@turnthepaigeh) March 15, 2020