Updated Mar 15, 2020 - Health

Coronavirus screening: Huge delays for American air travelers in Chicago

Travelers arrive at the international terminal of O'Hare Airport in Chicago on Friday. Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images

Chicago's O'Hare International Airport tweeted Saturday night that customs processing was "taking longer than usual" because of enhanced screening for the novel coronavirus for passengers coming from Europe.

Why it matters: The airport's admission and images circulated on social media of the hours-long wait after the Trump administration's travel restrictions came into effect midnight Friday. Illinois Gov. J.B Pritzker (D) said the lines were "unacceptable" and that President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence should act "immediately."

  • Americans returning from Europe are exempted from the ban preventing travelers from the continent visiting the United States, but they must undergo screening in the U.S.

What they're saying: "These crowds are waiting to get through customs which is under federal jurisdiction," Pritzker said in a Facebook statement. "To the frustrated people trying to get home, I have spoken with the mayor and our Senators and we are working together to get the federal government to act to solve this."

  • "We will do everything within our power to get relief," he continued without elaborating further. "The federal government needs to get its s@#t together. NOW."

Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that the agency is aware of reports of long wait times and is "working diligently" to resolve the situation.

  • “We’re continuing to balance our efficiencies with ensuring the health and safety of all American citizens through enhanced medical screening in accordance with CDC guidelines due to the global COVID-19 pandemic,” acting commissioner Mark Morgan added.

The big picture: Trump announced last Wednesday that European travel to the U.S. would be restricted for 30 days for member states of the Schengen Area, which includes most but not all of the European Union. By early Sunday, there were nearly 3,000 infections in the U.S. and every state but West Virginia reported cases.

  • Citizens of the United Kingdom and Ireland were initially exempted, but Pence announced Saturday the ban would be extended to include them from midnight Monday ET.
  • O'Hare Airport confirmed Chicago Police were "distributing bottled water and snacks to travelers waiting to get through customs processing."

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Pence says European travel ban will extend to U.K. and Ireland

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Vice President Mike Pence announced Saturday that all travel from Ireland and the United Kingdom to the U.S. will be suspended, effective midnight EST on Monday. He said Americans and legal residents abroad in those countries can return home.

Why it matters: The administration initially left the two off its restricted travel list, but that case has been weakened due to an uptick in cases in the UK.

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President Trump announced in an Oval Office address Wednesday that European travel to the U.S. will be restricted for 30 days, with exemptions for Americans who undergo screening upon their return.

The big picture: The U.S. now has more than 1,000 cases of coronavirus, with the likelihood that there are far more unknown cases due to major delays in testing.

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Why it matters: A freedom we usually take for granted — the ability to go anywhere, anytime — is taking a back seat to public health concerns as officials try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The interruption of travel has far-reaching economic consequences, especially for the 15.7 million Americans whose jobs depend on travel.

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