As weary travelers returned to the U.S. amid coronavirus-related travel restrictions, they were greeted with packed, hourslong waits for required medical screenings at airports.
Posts on social media indicated passengers at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport waited upward of four hours in winding lines, eliciting criticism from elected Illinois officials.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker tweeted at President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, noting that the customs process is under federal jurisdiction and demanding they take action to address the crowds. His concerns were echoed on Twitter by his fellow Democrats, Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth.
“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.”
While U.S. citizens, green card holders and some others are allowed to return home, travelers from Europe are being funneled to one of 13 U.S. airports where they’re subject to health screenings and quarantine orders.
Acknowledging the long lines at those airports in tweets posted just after midnight, the Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary said the screenings take about a minute per passenger.
“Right now we are working to add additional screening capacity and working with the airlines to expedite the process,” Chad Wolf tweeted. “I understand this is very stressful. In these unprecedented times, we ask for your patience.”
The dense crowds at the selected airports — among the busiest across the country — formed even as public health officials call for “social distancing” to stem the spread of the virus.
“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,” Dorothy Lowe told WFAA-TV at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, where some waits stretched to three hours.
The Texas airport’s Twitter account responded to passengers who raised concerns about the cramped conditions, saying its customer experience team was taking “extra precautions” and that hand sanitizer was available in all terminals. Meanwhile, O’Hare and Chicago police offered queuers bottled water and snacks, according to the airport’s Twitter account.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
Travelers from restricted countries in Europe, China and Iran are being advised to self-quarantine for 14 days after reaching their final destination in the U.S. “If you don’t have to travel, I wouldn’t do it,” Trump said.