Pritzker tweets and Lightfoot pleas prompt changes at O’Hare after long lines for coronavirus screening

Illinois’ Democratic governor said both Vice President Mike Pence and Chad Wolf, the acting Department of Homeland Security secretary, acknowledged in phone calls that “mistakes were made.”

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot met with reporters Sunday at O’Hare Airport’s International Terminal.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot meets with reporters Sunday at O’Hare Airport’s International Terminal to discuss long lines faced by passengers arriving from abroad.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Tweets by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to President Donald Trump and his administration — one including an expletive — got the attention Pritzker wanted as the Democratic governor and Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Sunday announced that federal officials would be doubling staff at O’Hare Airport a day after thousands of passengers were left waiting for hours as they faced screening for the coronavirus.

Pritzker on Sunday morning also took to national television to blast the Trump administration for the lack of action to deal with a huge number of travelers trying to get screened at one of the nation’s busiest airports for coronavirus after trips abroad.

“Here’s what I got. I got a call at 11 last night from a White House staffer who yelled at me about the tweet,” Pritzker said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The governor began publicly lambasting the Trump administration Saturday, when he said the lines at O’Hare were “unacceptable & need to be addressed immediately.” He tagged @realDonaldTrump and Vice President Mike Pence, “Since this is the only communication medium you pay attention to —you need to do something NOW.”

Pritzker punctuated Saturday’s tweet storm by saying, “The federal government needs to get its s@#t together.NOW.”

Trump later took to Twitter following Pritzker’s Sunday morning TV appearance to defend the botched rollout. “We are doing very precise Medical Screenings at our airports,” Trump tweeted. “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!”

Lightfoot, during a news conference Sunday at O’Hare, also urged Pence, the head of Trump’s coronavirus task force, to start communicating with local officials.

“If you do not listen and you do not bring us along on the journey first, where we can give you constructive input on how those directives will actually be playing out at the local level, you’re going to see more disasters like last night that are solely the responsibility of the federal government,” she said.

Pritzker, Lightfoot and Sen. Dick Durbin worked Sunday to get the administration to make essential changes at O’Hare.

The efforts culminated in another news conference Sunday, during which Pritzker said Pence and Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf personally called him to say they would be doubling the screening staff. Lightfoot also announced that a deal had been struck to tap Chicago Fire Department employees to help U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials with the enhanced screening process at O’Hare.

Pritzker said there was an acknowledgment on the calls with Pence and Wolf that “mistakes were made.”

“My call ... with the Vice President and the secretary of Homeland Security — both came to understand that they had challenges in their own Customs and Border Patrol management at O’Hare airport, and I think they both understood and said so, that it was mishandled,” Pritzker said. “And both said we’re stepping up today. We’re going to be bringing, in fact, doubling the size of the personnel at O’Hare Airport.”

‘It was really quick’

The calls for changes appear to have worked — for now. By Sunday evening, the new system for screening travelers coming from Europe was running much more smoothly, according to travelers.

Kai Linsenmeyer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison junior who had been studying in Germany, landed late Sunday afternoon expecting to be held up after seeing online what other passengers had experienced. Instead, he got through customs, had his temperature taken and grabbed his bags in about an hour.

“It was actually not bad at all,” said Linsenmeyer, who was being picked up by his mom and driven home to Madison, Wisconsin.

Another college student who was studying in Spain also breezed through the advanced screening at O’Hare on Sunday afternoon.

“It was less than an hour,” said Hayley, a sophomore at University of Wisconsin-Parkside who didn’t offer her last name. “It was really quick.”

The pre-med student is now bracing for culture shock after returning to the states amid the growing health crisis. Compared to the “relaxed” mood of the Europeans she had been spending time with, she said Americans appear to be “overreacting” in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It’s a virus,” said Hayley, who lives in the Chicago area. “People are being big babies about it.”

Chaos in the international terminal

Pritzker’s frustrations with the Trump administration boiled over Saturday night — after the first day of increased COVID-19 screenings for travelers flying from 16 European countries to 13 U.S. airports — when more than 3,000 passengers were stuck inside O’Hare’s international terminal. Similarly chaotic scenes played out at some of the other airports, where passengers were screened for COVID-19 and advised to self-quarantine for 14 days.

The changes came after Trump imposed a new European travel ban that began Friday. The ban prohibits most foreign visitors from coming to the U.S. from continental Europe for 30 days.

As even more flights and passengers were scheduled to arrive Sunday from abroad, Lightfoot urged the customs department to allow members of the city’s fire department to help take the temperatures of arriving passengers. Later Sunday, the mayor announced the agreement to deputize them as screeners.

Meanwhile, the troubled rollout of the new Trump administration directives raised alarms for some public health experts. Dr. Robert Murphy, director of the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said he was “appalled” that people flying from “epidemic areas” in Europe were left to wait for up to nine hours in a confined area.

“If they weren’t exposed to COVID-19 before, they probably are now,” Murphy said in a statement. “From a public health perspective, this is malpractice.”

During his television appearance, Pritzker said the Trump administration should have increased customs staffing, as well as the number of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention personnel on the ground.

“They did neither of those. So last night as people were flooding into O’Hare Airport, they were stuck in a small area, hundreds and hundreds of people, and that’s exactly what you don’t want in this pandemic,” Pritzker said.

On Sunday, acting DHS Secretary Wolf said he and acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan agreed the lines at O’Hare and other airports were “unacceptable.” Wolf also acknowledged that “adjustments were not made quick enough” but said changes have since been made.

“We’ve adjusted our processes, he said. “We continue to surge personnel, and we are certainly glad to see certain airports and certain airlines step up, partner with us and help address this unprecedented situation.”

With air travel curtailed, the security lines for outbound passengers were short Sunday at O’Hare Airport.

With air travel curtailed, the security lines for outbound passengers were short Sunday at O’Hare Airport. But with travel bans kicking in, the flood of passengers returning to the U.S. overwhelmed U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel at the airport on Saturday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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