In an error-laden speech on Wednesday night, President Trump surprised the airline industry by announcing a travel ban on citizens from 26 European countries in an attempt to quell the spread of the coronavirus. On Saturday, the first day that the restrictions and “enhanced entry screenings” were put into effect, Customs lines at major U.S. airports were inundated with passengers, resulting in reported waits of up to seven hours. Like many Trump administration responses to the pandemic, the implementation of the rules may have increased the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission, rather than their intended effect.
The new screening process requires that Americans returning from Europe arrive at one of 13 designated airports, where they will be interviewed by a Customs officer cross-referencing an individual’s travel history with a Homeland Security database. If a person is coming from a country designated as a coronavirus risk, they will be asked to self-quarantine for two weeks — or could be subject to federal quarantine if deemed a greater risk. With a rush of travelers returning and a DHS apparatus adjusting to the new regiment, lines ballooned as travelers faced interminable waits.
Cheryl Benard, a health-systems expert who flew into Dulles International Airport outside D.C. on Saturday, described the failures at hand during her experience in an op-ed for the Washington Post:
The pictures you may have seen only begin to capture the chaos. There was no attempt to enable social distancing; we were packed closely together. Two giant queues of people — one for U.S. citizens and green-card holders and one for foreign nationals — wound their way through the cavernous hall. I counted and came up with approximately 450 people in each section, for a total of just under a thousand. Many were coughing, sneezing and looking unwell.
When I inched closer to the front, I could see that a scant six immigration desks were in service. Two additional desks to the left had less traffic. These are ordinarily for people in wheelchairs; now, the wheelchairs were mixed in with the rest. When I asked a security guard about the other lines, he told me they were for people with a confirmed corona diagnosis. There was no separation for this group — no plastic sheets, not even a bit of distance. When your line snaked to the left, you were inches away from the infected.
The chaos spurred Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker to demand action from President Trump on Twitter: “Since this is the only communication medium you pay attention to — you need to do something NOW.” On Meet the Press on Sunday, Pritzker said he did hear back from the White House, though it would not provide any relief to Customs officials at Chicago’s O’Hare International airport. “Well, here is what I got,” Pritzker told Chuck Todd. “I got a call at about 11 o’clock last night after that tweet from a White House staffer who yelled at me about the tweet. That is what I got.”
With the travel ban extending to Ireland and the United Kingdom on Monday at midnight, it’s unlikely that the chaos at the airports, and the increased potential for COVID-19 exposure caused by the lines, will subside — and all for a containment effort that public-health experts are confident will not work. University College London epidemiologist Francois Balloux told NPR that the travel ban was a distraction in a country dealing with substantial levels of community spread already. “If you bring in one or two additional people — once you’ve lost completely the ability to do any contact tracing — it won’t make any difference,” he said. “From a public-health perspective, it’s completely pointless.”
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