Chicago — Airports nationwide were thrown into chaos this weekend as workers scrambled to roll out the Trump administration’s hastily arranged health screenings for travelers returning from Europe.

Scores of anxious passengers said they encountered jam-packed terminals, long lines and hours of delays as they waited to be questioned by health authorities at some of the busiest travel hubs in the United States.

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 Sunday during a news conference at the city’s O’Hare International Airport.

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 of Columbia resident Nik Kowsar, 50, said he was supposed to return home Tuesday from London but moved up his flight Saturday night after seeing photos of passengers stuck in hours-long delays at O’Hare 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 Donald 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.

Acting CBP commissioner Mark Morgan on Sunday acknowledged the frustration over “longer than usual delays” but said on Twitter that authorities are prioritizing the “health and safety of all American citizens.” He added that “in several airports, we’re seeing an immediate improvement.” Lawmakers remained sharply critical.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the long lines “unacceptable,” while Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., tweeted of waits stretching up to eight hours.

“Admin was unprepared after Presidential ban on travel from Europe,” Durbin tweeted.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., on Sunday wrote a letter to top CBP officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asking what authorities are doing to “prevent the spread of this dysfunction.”

Airports apologized, asked travelers to be patient and said they were urging the government to act to ease the backups even as some called the new screening measures important for health and safety.

“We’ve strongly encouraged our federal partners to increase staffing to meet demand,” O’Hare tweeted Saturday night.

A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because that person was not authorized to speak publicly, said CBP is deploying new officers to address the lines. As accusations of poor coordination mounted, White House spokesman Judd Deere called the Trump administration’s interactions with state and local officials “unprecedented.”

“Those communications have only increased since the first of the year as the federal government works in close partnership with governors and mayors across the country to protect the public health,” Deere said.

The United States is preparing to ban travel from the United Kingdom and Ireland beginning midnight Monday, which will bring the total number of U.S. travel-restricted countries in Europe to 28 – and put more pressure on the U.S. travel hubs now mirroring the mayhem that overtook European airports after Trump’s travel ban announcement.

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, Texas, 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. “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.”

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.

Kowsar, the D.C. resident who rushed home from London, said he was surprised not to find more stringent screening. The only question he encountered while passing through customs at Dulles, he said, 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.

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.”

 

The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff and Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.


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