Airport logjams go against virus advice
Harsh criticism rained on the Trump administration Sunday from state and local officials over long lines of returning international passengers at some U.S. airports that could have turned them into coronavirus carriers as they tried to get home.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lambasted the administration for allowing about 3,000 Americans returning from Europe to be stuck for hours inside the customs area at O’Hare International Airport on Saturday, violating federal recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people practice “social distance.”
The passengers, many of them rushing home because of fears they would be stuck in Europe, were screened by federal customs and Homeland Security agents for coronavirus symptoms before they were allowed to leave the airport.
Long lines also formed Saturday in Boston, Dallas and others of the 13 airports that are accepting return flights from Europe. Conditions were better Sunday, but lines could again grow as the day progresses and more flights arrive.
“People were forced into conditions that are against CDC guidance and are totally unacceptable,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot singled out Vice
President Mike Pence and his coronavirus task force for not talking with local officials before implementing the screening program. State and local officials could have offered “concrete suggestions” for how the program could have been implemented with the least disruption, she said, but the administration acted unilaterally.
“Thousands of travelers were forced to wait in exceedingly long lines, congregating in concourses and putting themselves and their loved ones at greater risk of exposure,” Lightfoot said. Passengers Sunday will likely be kept on their planes to manage the flow into the customs area, she said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a strong supporter of the president, tweeted Sunday that the lines in Dallas are “unacceptable & I’m working hard to get it fixed.” He said he had contacted the head of Homeland Security, acting Secretary Chad Wolf.
Not every U.S. airport accepting European arrivals experienced overcrowding. Airports serving Miami, Seattle, Los Angeles and Newark, New Jersey, reported short lines at customs Saturday and Sunday.
Pritzker said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the administration should have bolstered staffing at the receiving airports in expectation of long lines. But instead, he said, passengers “were stuck in a small area, hundreds and hundreds of people, and that’s exactly what you don’t want in this pandemic.”
He predicted Sunday would “be even worse.”
President Donald Trump defended the administration’s actions in a tweet Sunday.
“We are doing very precise Medical Screenings at our airports. Pardon the interruptions and delays, we are moving as quickly as possible, but it is very important that we be vigilant and careful. We must get it right. Safety first!” he wrote.
Acting Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Mark Morgan said in a written statement
Sunday that the agency is making improvements to its procedures, but that it must “balance our efficiencies with ensuring the health and safety of all American citizens through enhanced medical screening.”
Katy Rogers spent four hours Saturday at O’Hare in a tightly packed space with students, a basketball team, musicians and older people in wheelchairs.
“Everybody was nervous about it,” she said Sunday. “Everyone working there was confused and frustrated, and their hands were tied, too.”
Even though she showed no signs of being sick, she now plans to quarantine herself on the organic produce farm she runs in Noblesville, Indiana.
Elizabeth Pulvermacher, a University of Wisconsin student, arrived Saturday at O’Hare from Madrid, where she had been studying. The customs process made her feel “unsafe,” she said.
“The whole idea is getting rid of the spread of coronavirus, but there were hundreds and hundreds of people in very close proximity,” Pulvermacher said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the airport crowds could spread the disease, but that they are likely to continue. Americans must understand that there is no need to rush back from Europe, he said, but “when people see a travel ban, they immediately want to hunker and get home.”
“Hopefully we don’t have more of that, but I think we probably unfortunately will,” he said.
The Dallas-Fort Worth Airport’s Twitter account responded to passengers who raised concerns about the cramped conditions, saying that its customer experience team was taking “extra precautions” and that hand sanitizer was available in all terminals.
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.
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.
The worldwide outbreak has sickened more than 156,000 people and left more than 5,800 dead, with thousands of new cases confirmed each day. The death toll in the United States climbed to 61, while infections neared 3,000.
STATES TAKING ACTION
Illinois’ Pritzker on
Sunday ordered all bars and restaurants in his state to close amid the threat of the new coronavirus, and officials elsewhere in the country said they were considering similar restrictions after revelers ignored warnings against attending large gatherings.
“The time for persuasion and public appeals is over,” Pritzker said. “This is not a joke. No one is immune to this.”
The governor said he had tried earlier this week to appeal to everyone’s good judgment to stay home, to avoid bars and not congregate in crowds. He added that it is unfortunate that many people didn’t take that seriously.
The order takes effect Monday night and will last through March 30.
New York City said it
● will close the nation’s largest public school system on Monday, sending over 1.1 million children home in hopes of curbing the spread of coronavirus, the city’s mayor announced Sunday, calling it a “very troubling moment.”
A somber Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the decision to close schools through at least April 20 and possibly for the school year, following a growing number of school closures in communities and entire states nationwide and mounting pressure in New York from residents, City Council members and others.
California Gov. Gavin ●
Newsom asked Californians over the age of 65 on Sunday to isolate themselves from others and told neighborhood bars and pubs to close their doors as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state continued to rise.
Newsom did not, though, mandate the closure of all restaurants in the state.
The governor said he would issue additional directives on Tuesday to schools that remain open and said he was especially focused on providing support to low-income families.
People wait to go through Customs at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport on Saturday. Austin Boschen said it took him at least four hours to go through Customs. The intense crowding put people into conditions that go against CDC guidance during the coronavirus outbreak.