Weary travellers returning to the U.S. amid coronavirus-related travel restrictions were greeted by long lines and hours-long 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, travellers from Europe are being funnelled to one of 13 U.S. airports where they are 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.
Austin Boschen was returning from a spring break trip to Jalisco, Mexico, with his girlfriend and described the situation at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport as “atrocious, no semblance of a line beyond the barriers and no officials or staff around to direct.”
He and his girlfriend managed to get near the front of the crowd and learned people there had already been waiting for two hours, he wrote in an email; he reached the head of the line 2 1/2 hours later, and then waited another hour and a half to see an agent.
“The entire time people in the crowd would yell out in anger, and Customs officers would yell at people to not take pictures,” he wrote. “Short chants among the room would start and stop periodically. It was very tense at times, the crowd was very agitated.”