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U.S. Coronavirus Screenings Trigger Airport Bottlenecks

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And we've just learned that the Fed has decided to cut interest rates to near zero to address the coronavirus outbreak's effect on the economy. Meanwhile, the Trump administration's new restrictions on travelers flying home from Europe have caused nightmarish bottlenecks at U.S. airports. Americans who deplaned at Chicago's O'Hare Airport yesterday encountered thousands of people all jammed together waiting to be screened for the symptoms of coronavirus.

Officials say it's a national emergency, and people need to be patient. But reports are that the first 24 hours of the president's plan has been chaotic. Here with the latest is NPR's John Burnett, who's been following this story from Austin, Texas.

John, thanks so much for joining us.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: You bet, Michel.

MARTIN: All right. So this wasn't supposed to happen. Can you tell us what produced these huge backups at the airports?

BURNETT: Right. Well, apparently, nobody really thought the scenario through. Homeland Security announced these new procedures on Friday. And they said everybody coming from China, Iran and most of Europe had to fly into 13 U.S. airports. So federal employees would be doing enhanced entry screening for COVID-19, and everybody then had to self-quarantine for two weeks. And, you know, that sounds fine and logical. But some of these big international airports were completely unprepared for it.

I'll let Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot tell about what happened last night at O'Hare, which is the world's busiest airport. She held a press conference at the airport today, and she was not happy with the federal response.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

LORI LIGHTFOOT: 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 of COVID-19.

MARTIN: So did that happen at every airport? And if not, were the backups worse at some than others? And why would that be?

BURNETT: Yeah. I don't think it did, Michel. From what travelers are saying, the worst airports were certainly O'Hare, DFW down in my country and JFK. Others like Atlanta Hartsfield, Detroit Metro and even LAX - it doesn't sound like they had the hundreds and thousands of folks all jammed up waiting to be screened.

Mayor Lightfoot said that O'Hare really got particularly hit hard because of a lot of overseas flight that all arrived at the same time. And it also may be a function of some screeners were being more rigorous at some airports. But the same thing happened at departure halls in foreign airports where U.S. Customs and Border Protection were pre-screening passengers headed to the U.S. and also giving them these health interviews.

I heard this story from a travel planner named Betsy Ball (ph). She and her husband were flying home from Milan, Italy. They had left Ireland for Chicago O'Hare yesterday. And she says they waited in line for five hours at Dublin Airport next to hundreds of other travelers waiting for health interviews.

BETSY BALL: You're in close quarters. You are (laughter) breathing on everybody. All these people have been traveling around Europe, where the virus is supposed to be the strongest. Nobody took our temperature. And nobody even said, you should go under a 14-day self-quarantine.

BURNETT: So Betsy Ball and her husband are now isolating themselves for two weeks at their daughter's house in Wisconsin.

MARTIN: But that's at their own discretion, right? All right, so...

BURNETT: Exactly.

MARTIN: So what should we expect going forward?

BURNETT: Well, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf tweeted that he was aware of the airport delays, and his department plans to bring in more people to do health screening. He said, I understand this is very stressful. And in these unprecedented times, we ask for your patience.

The Chicago mayor said she's visited with her federal partners, and they're considering a range of options to try to do away with some of these terrible backlogs - perhaps have EMT-trained Chicago firefighters take their temperatures to supplement health workers, let passengers stay on the plane until they're ready for screening.

But there are about to be a lot fewer international flights. American Airlines announced today because of the new rules on inbound travelers, the air carrier is cutting back international flights by 75% starting tomorrow to May 6.

MARTIN: That was NPR's John Burnett, who's been following this story from Austin, Texas.

John, thank you so much.

BURNETT: You bet, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.