U.S. asks travelers for patience amid chaos, long lines at airports

By Peter Szekely and Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Travelers returning to the United States and being screened for the coronavirus were met by long lines and massive delays at some major airports, prompting federal officials to deploy more staff and President Donald Trump to appeal for patience.

“Pardon the interruptions and delays,” Trump said in a Twitter post on Sunday afternoon. “We are moving as quickly as possible, but it is very important that we be vigilant and careful.”

Authorities are conducting “very precise” medical screenings, Trump tweeted, adding safety comes first. The disease has infected more than 3,200 people in the United States and killed at least 62.

Trump’s comments echoed those of officials from the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection. They acknowledged delays caused by the new testing policy, but said it was necessary to protect Americans from the virus, which has rapidly spread around the globe.

The Trump administration last week imposed restrictions on travelers from continental Europe, and on Saturday extended the ban to Britain and Ireland. U.S. citizens and permanent residents would still be able to return home, but would be funneled through specific airports.

Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan said the agency was working to adjust its response, but acknowledged the problems faced by travelers waiting to enter the country.

“CBP recognizes that the wait times experienced yesterday were unacceptable,” Morgan said in a statement.

Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said he understood that the situation was very stressful.

“We will be increasing capacity, but the health and safety of the American public is first & foremost,” Wolf wrote on Twitter.

The medical screenings come in addition to the usual immigration and customs checks for travelers entering from abroad. They take about one minute each, he said.

Some lawmakers, including Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin, both Democrats, demanded Trump add screening staff, citing the increased risk of spreading the virus in crowded conditions.

Among those caught up in the chaos at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on Saturday night was Twitter user Sophie Bair, who posted a video of giant crowds and said she had waited for four hours.

“Pics can’t even capture the scale of this,” she wrote. “We’ve had to wait in 3 different stages of lines.”

But by Sunday afternoon, the lines at O’Hare, one of the largest U.S. airports, had all but disappeared, travelers said.

“It was fast,” said Emylou Paris, a 50-year-old nurse who had just arrived with two friends after flying from Vienna and then Brussels.

Paris and her friends, all wearing masks, said they would self-quarantine for 14 days after spending an extra $700 each to come home four days early after Trump announced the travel restrictions.

Packing travelers into crowded lines and airports was “not helpful” to efforts to contain the virus, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said.

“I’m not going to make policy with you, but if you can possibly lessen that crowding one way or the other, we should do it,” Fauci said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

Illinois Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker, who had slammed the administration’s response in a series of Twitter posts on Saturday, said Wolf and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told him in a Sunday morning phone call that CBP was increasing staff at the airport.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Maria Caspani in New York; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and David Shepardson in Washington and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Daniel Wallis)