Upon deplaning, all the passengers on our flight, more than 350 of us, were ushered into a single line entering the international arrivals area. Our queue fed into a larger queue with others. Two things quickly became obvious: One, we weren’t getting home anytime soon. And two, anyone in this huge, smashed-together crowd who may have contracted the coronavirus was now potentially infecting others, who could in turn infect any number of additional people. The scene went from annoying to frightening. Passengers began posting photos of the nightmarish throng on social media. We hadn’t yet been given any sort of health forms to complete (unlike in the countries we’d visited), but we trusted we’d be receiving clear instructions about what would occur, since the whole point of the line was, supposedly, to deal with the health crisis. Those instructions never arrived; the only announcement made to the massive crowd came from a frustrated U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, who shouted at everyone not to post photos on social media.
An airport security officer eventually handed out a one-sided form titled simply “UNITED STATES TRAVELER HEALTH DECLARATION.” The form bore no official markings or formal insignia of the United States or any federal agency. It looked like an intern’s Microsoft Word busywork project. At least the health screening forms in the Middle East had included some clip art.
It’s difficult to explain what exactly happened, because it was so unclear to us. But it seemed that a two-stop entry process had been put in place. First, travelers were sent through the normal customs and immigration entry points. (They’d closed all of the Global Entry kiosks, without explanation, so no one was able to use the shortcuts so many have grown dependent on — and which would have reduced the time we all spent in proximity to each other in line, though it would have meant we all touched the same screens.) At immigration, the officer stamped our passports — but then instructed us not to proceed to retrieve our baggage and exit, but rather to return to a new line. This, we were perfunctorily told, was for “screening.”
Again, we had not visited any Level 3-designated countries or any countries named in Trump’s newly announced travel ban. We were exhibiting no concerning health symptoms. Yet there we were, crammed together in a slowly moving line with hundreds, if not a few thousand, of other returning passengers, a sad scene where we remained for several hours.
My husband serves on the faculty of a medical school and is an expert on community health research. What was happening at O’Hare, he said to me and to those around us who had formed an alliance, was an obvious and utter failure of Public Health Prevention 101. It didn’t take his expertise to realize this: Children and babies were mixed in with elderly travelers, everyone exhaustedly shuffling along with their carry-on bags, inches apart, snaking back and around corners across the cavernous arrivals area. The odds of our contracting covid-19 were exponentially greater right then than in any of the countries we’d just visited halfway around the world.
We tried to address our concerns with various officials, from airport security to immigration officers, all of whom were polite but increasingly beleaguered by bottlenecked crowds and a broken process. We repeatedly sought out any Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials specifically, but none were visible among the throngs.
Travelers were growing rightly frustrated, particularly after the screening line came to a standstill for over an hour. We kept overhearing airport security personnel telling passengers to bear with them: “It’s Day One,” was the refrain, meaning the protocols were brand new. But that only underscores the rashness with which the Trump administration announced them. Authorities have known for weeks that the virus was a serious threat and spreading in the United States. The announcement of the ban came without a solid implementation plan. Standing in the airport, we became collateral damage, the real-life consequences of Trump’s rhetoric.
The illogic and absurdity of the scene would have been funny had it not felt so reckless and irresponsible. This protocol flew in the face of all advice about social distancing and included no discernible triage measures (save for passengers in wheelchairs, who were taken into another area we couldn’t see). It’s also unclear that any document management process was in place with the completed health forms. All the while, video screens were silently looping guidance to travelers in a font too small to be read.
After 4½ hours, we finally came face-to-face with a CDC official. She listened to us and carefully reviewed our forms. “You’re right, you don’t have to be here. You can go,” she said and apologized repeatedly that we’d been stuck there so long for truly no reason.
On our midnight car ride home, talking about how we would immediately begin a self-quarantine process as a precaution, we saw scores of green-attired St. Patrick’s Day revelers piling in and out of local bars. On Sunday afternoon, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a measure to limit large gatherings; Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) has been excoriating the Trump administration for its failure to enact a passenger screening system involving any practical safeguards. Late Sunday, he announced all bars and restaurants would soon be closed. But O’Hare necessarily remains open, and we have no faith that Trump’s plan is either working or keeping anyone safe.
Coming home has never felt quite so scary.