CHICAGO (AP) — 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, both Democrats, 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 distancing.”
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
Long lines also formed Saturday in Boston, Dallas and others
of the 13 airports that are accepting return flights from Europe.
“People were forced into conditions that are against CDC
guidance and are totally unacceptable,” Lightfoot said.
Conditions were better Sunday, but lines could again grow as
the day progresses and more flights arrive. Not every U.S. airport accepting
European arrivals experienced overcrowding. Airports serving Miami, Seattle,
Los Angeles and Newark reported short lines at customs Saturday
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.
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
But Pritzker predicted Sunday would “be even worse” on NBC’s
“Meet the Press.” He said that the administration should have bolstered
staffing at the receiving airports in anticipation 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.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbot, a Republican and strong supporter of
the president, tweeted Sunday that the lines in Dallas were “unacceptable &
I’m working hard to get it fixed.” He said he had contacted the head of
Homeland Security, acting Secretary Chad Wolf.
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
“Everybody was nervous about it,” she said Sunday. “Everyone
working there was confused and frustrated.”
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,”
Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of Institute for
Global Health at Northwestern University, said he was “appalled” by what he saw
Saturday at nearby O’Hare.
“If they weren’t exposed to Covid-19 before, they probably
are now. From a public health perspective, this is malpractice,” Murphy said in
a statement. “The lack of preparation and concern is unfathomable. This is not ‘poor
planning.’ This is ‘no planning.’”
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.
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
reported from Fort Lauderdale. Associated Press journalists Mallika
Sen, Vanessa Alvarez, Christopher Weber, Eugene Johnson and John Seewer
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