The Slatest

Coronavirus Screenings Cause Massive Lines at U.S. Airports

Travelers arrive at the international terminal of the O'Hare Airport in Chicago, Illinois, on March 13, 2020.
Travelers arrive at the international terminal of the O’Hare Airport in Chicago, Illinois, on March 13, 2020. KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/Getty Images

Travelers returning to the United States are being met by long lines that requires them to wait for hours as airports across the country were thrown into chaos amid newly imposed health screenings for those returning from Europe. Accounts by passengers at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, for example, said passengers had to wait as long as four hours in long, crowded lines. The wait was in large part due to the “enhanced entry screenings” that the Trump administration unveiled Friday to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As part of those new measures, passengers arriving from Europe are being routed through 13 U.S. airports, where their medical histories are analyzed and workers check for any symptoms.

Travelers forced to wait for hours worried that the additional screening requirements ended up creating the exact kind of conditions that would make it easier to spread covid-19 as people stood in crowded lines in close proximity to each other. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker blasted the Trump administration on Twitter, calling the lines “unacceptable” as he demanded a quick solution. “The federal government needs to get its s@#t together,” he wrote. “NOW.”

Pritzker was not alone as Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth also called for action from the White House. “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.”

The Department of homeland Security’s acting secretary acknowledged delays in a tweet late Saturday night. “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.”

Passengers described tense situations as angry passengers lashed out at workers. “The entire time people in the crowd would yell out in anger, and Customs officers would yell at people to not take pictures,” one traveler returning to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport said. “Short chants among the room would start and stop periodically. It was very tense at times, the crowd was very agitated.” There were also reports of similar problems at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport as staffers struggled to even keep up with the demand for forms that passengers had to fill out detailing their travel and whether they had experienced any symptoms. “They didn’t have pens and told us to share,” one traveler said. “Which sounds like a great thing in the middle of the pandemic.”