Airlines

Americans returning from abroad face hours-long lines at US airports for coronavirus screening

Key Points
  • The Trump administration's 30-day ban on foreigners who have been in Europe over the past two weeks took effect Friday.
  • Travelers at Chicago's O'Hare and others complained about long lines in cramped arrivals halls.
  • Illinois' governor demanded President Donald Trump take action to address the crowds.
In this photo provided by Austin Boschen, people wait in line to go through the customs at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in Grapevine, Texas, Saturday, March 14, 2020.
Austin Boschen | AP

Thousands of Americans returning home faced cramped arrivals halls and hours-long waits for the Trump administration's new coronavirus screenings at some of the busiest airports in the country, sparking some worry that it could further the spread of the virus.

Health officials have warned against large gatherings to help stem the spread of coronavirus, which has sickened more than 2,900 people in the United States, and the large crowds sparked worries that it could further increase the spread of the disease among travelers and the cities they were flying into. The spread of the virus led officials to cancel professional sports games and events like the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York and the Boston Marathon, scheduled for next month.

Trump last week banned most Europeans from visiting the United States for 30 days in a bid to contain the virus. The unprecedented restrictions created chaos at European airports as Americans raced to get home before airlines canceled flights and European countries take their own drastic measures to fight the illness. 

Returning American citizens and permanent residents would face "enhanced entry screening where the passenger will be asked about their medical history, current condition, and asked for contact information for local health authorities," the Department of Homeland Security said Friday.

Upon arrival in the U.S., however, some travelers waited more than four hours for screening.

"The crowds & lines O'Hare are unacceptable & need to be addressed immediately," Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker tweeted. "@realDonaldTrump @VP since this is the only communication medium you pay attention to—you need to do something NOW. These crowds are waiting to get through customs which is under federal jurisdiction."

Chad Wolf, acting secretary of Homeland Security tweeted: "I understand this is very stressful. In these unprecedented times, we ask for your patience. It currently takes ~60 seconds for medical professionals to screen each passenger. We will be increasing capacity but the health and safety of the American public is first & foremost."

Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, urged the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection and the director of the Centers for Disease Control to increase staffing at airports due to the bottlenecks there.

"I am concerned that this chaos is not only adding to the public anxiety about coronavirus, but endangering public health by forcing large groups into close proximity with potentially infected individuals," he wrote in a letter Sunday. "I therefore request details about both of your agencies' enhanced screening procedures, as well as the actions you are taking to mitigate and prevent the spread of this dysfunction at our airports."

On Friday, the World Health Organization said Europe was the new epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.