Travelers returning from Europe Saturday were met with long lines and crowds at O’Hare Airport as they waited hours for enhanced screenings for coronavirus by customs officials.
The lines and crowds drew a strong rebuke from Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Twitter, who demanded, “The federal government needs to get its s@#t together. NOW.”
Christina Clancy said her son, Timothy Clancy, was returning home from Greece Saturday night and was caught up in the lines after his study abroad trip was cut short due to a ban on travel from Europe that was announced earlier this week by President Donald Trump. The ban was expanded Saturday to include the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The federal government needs to get its s@#t together. NOW.— Governor JB Pritzker (@GovPritzker) March 15, 2020
When her son, a student at the University of Southern California, landed Saturday evening at O’Hare, he found himself packed in close quarters with other travelers waiting to be screened for the virus at customs, his mother said.
“He thinks they’re going to take temperatures,” Christina Clancy told the Sun-Times. “But even if they do, what is that going to tell them? Are they going to treat anyone any differently? Everyone should be quarantined anyways when they come back.”
This is unacceptable. The reactionary, poorly planned travel ban has left thousands of travelers at ORD forced into even greater health risk. @realdonaldtrump and @CBP: no one has time for your incompetence. Fully staff our airport right now, and stop putting Americans in danger. https://t.co/gswIaHwelx— Mayor Lori Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) March 15, 2020
In response to several tweets from disgruntled travelers, the airport said processing was taking “longer than usual” due to screening for COVID-19 of passengers coming from Europe. Chicago police and airport staff were giving water bottles and snacks to travelers waiting.
“The crowds & lines O’Hare are unacceptable & need to be addressed immediately,” Pritzker tweeted. “To the frustrated people trying to get home, I have spoken with the mayor and our Senators and we are working together to get the federal government to act to solve this.
“We will do everything within our power to get relief,” Pritzker wrote.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot also reacted to the delays harshly on Twitter and tweeted directly at the president.
“This is unacceptable. The reactionary, poorly planned travel ban has left thousands of travelers at ORD forced into even greater health risk,” the mayor wrote. “@realdonaldtrump and @CBP: no one has time for your incompetence. Fully staff our airport right now, and stop putting Americans in danger.”
Earlier Saturday at the state’s daily coronavirus news conference, the city’s top health department official said that airport screening procedures are determined at the federal level.
“And our concern is when travelers are not getting full information when returning,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “It’s really making sure they understand what to watch for, what symptoms, where to reach out if they need to.
“This has been high on our list in terms of things that are not in place at the federal level,” Arwady said, adding that the city was also talking with airlines to identify other gaps.
In a statement Sunday morning, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said the agency is aware of the increased wait times and is working to address them.
“Our goal is and remains to process passengers as safely and efficiently as possible,” the agency wrote in the statement. “We appreciate the patience of the traveling public as we deal with this unprecedented situation.
“We’re continuing to balance our efficiencies with ensuring the health and safety of all American citizens through enhanced medical screening in accordance with CDC guidelines due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Nothing is more important than the safety, health and security of our citizens.”
My son landed at O’Hare after an abrupt end to study abroad. He’s been standing in this pack of people for an hour while waiting to have his temp taken. If he’s not sick now, odds are he will be soon. #coronavirus #travelban #SocialDistancing pic.twitter.com/RMo6SFx1SM— Christina Clancy (@christi_clancy) March 15, 2020
Clancy said she and her son were also worried about the safety of others at the airport.
“He’s worried everyone’s going to get sick because the way this virus sheds, it doesn’t take much for it to spread among all those people,” she said of her son.
Photos shared on social media showed a sea of people in line. Some travelers said they had been waiting at least six hours.
Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and government officials recommended people across the country “self-quarantine” to prevent the spread of the disease.
Christina Clancy said she plans to have her son spend his quarantine at their guest house in Madison, Wisconsin.