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Travelers Face Long Airport Lines As Coronavirus Screenings Begin


Every day brings waves of news about the coronavirus - new numbers of cases in new places, closings and cancellations, countries on lockdown, travel bans and new hurdles at airports. And it's that - hastily implemented screenings at major American airports - that's causing huge lines of travelers and potentially putting them at risk. NPR's Bobby Allyn joins us now to talk about that. Hi, Bobby.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what's going on at airports right now?

ALLYN: Well, so very long lines and a lot of confusion - so as part of the Trump administration's new coronavirus travel protocols, thousands of Americans traveling home from mostly mainland Europe are now being subject to these medical screenings. And as we're seeing on social media, that's causing these long, winding lines. You know, people are frustrated - up to six to eight hours in delays in just picking up your bag as these customs officers ask you about your medical history. And, you know, on Twitter, it's just, like I said, these angry travelers are posting...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I've seen the posts. There are - they're something. They really are.

ALLYN: Yeah - just posting these - I mean, it's just these huge, you know, crowds and snaking lines. And, you know, remember this is almost exactly the opposite of what U.S. health officials want to see right now in recommending, you know, so-called social distancing. Now we have the opposite of that. We have all these people jammed together at these airports, just trying to get home.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Coming from other countries that have large cases of infections, probably.

ALLYN: Exactly. Yeah. So, you know, we've talked to Dr. Irwin Redlener about these long lines that we're seeing at airports. And he's the director of the National Center of Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. And here's what he said.

IRWIN REDLENER: If we have backups and backlogs of people waiting to get screened, that means we have a lot of people hanging around together, which is sort of the exact opposite of what we'd prefer people do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: People must be very upset. What is the plan to speed up these lines? Is the Trump administration saying anything?

ALLYN: Homeland Security officials, you know, did say that they're aware of these problems. I'm sure, like us, they've seen it on social media and elsewhere. And they're doing what they can to try to speed the lines up. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said, you know, it takes about a minute per passenger to conduct these screenings. But, you know, if you multiply that by hundreds and hundreds of travelers...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's a long wait for a lot of people.

ALLYN: Yeah. It really starts to add up. So Wolf said today that the Trump administration's, like I said, working to add screening capacity and working with airlines to try to expedite the process. And he says, look. I know it's really stressful to be waiting in a long line during a global pandemic. But he asked passengers, just take a deep breath and try to stay calm.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So does the chaos we're seeing now at airports around the country suggest the Trump administration was unprepared for the reality of these new screening measures?

ALLYN: That's definitely the accusation that we're hearing from critics of the Trump administration. So at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, which is one of the airports that has seen especially long traveler lines and lots of mayhem, you know, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin pointed to that airport. And he said he's heard of delays of up to eight hours just to pick up your luggage if you're a passenger. And he placed the blame squarely with the Trump administration. But hours later, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan responded. And he said the Trump administration understands the new screenings are, quote, "extremely frustrating" but, quote, "nothing is more important than the safety, health and security of our citizens." And I will say it was a message that did not appear to cool the nerves of the thousands of Americans traveling home from Europe who are moving at a snail's pace in mass crowds just to get out of the airport.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, so people were confused if they could get home because of these hastily implemented travel bans. And now they're confused about what happens when they get into the country.

ALLYN: That's right. Exactly. Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thanks so much.

ALLYN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.