Long lines of returning international passengers at some US airports have prompted harsh criticism of the Trump administration.
State and local officials are concerned that the queues could have turned travellers into coronavirus carriers as they tried to get home.
Illinois governor JB Pritzker and Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, both Democrats, lambasted the administration for allowing about 3,000 Americans returning from Europe to be stuck for hours inside the customs area at O’Hare International Airport on Saturday, violating federal recommendations that people practice “social distance”.
We are doing very precise Medical Screenings at our airports. Pardon the interruptions and delays, we are moving as quickly as possible, but it is very important that we be vigilant and careful. We must get it right. Safety first!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 15, 2020
The passengers, many of them rushing home because of fears they would be stuck in Europe, were screened by federal customs and homeland security agents for coronavirus symptoms before they were allowed to leave the airport.
Long lines also formed on Saturday in Boston, Dallas and others of the 13 airports that are accepting return flights from Europe.
Conditions were better on Sunday, but lines could grow again as the day progresses and more flights arrive.
“People were forced into conditions that are against guidance and are totally unacceptable,” Ms Lightfoot said.
Ms Lightfoot singled out vice president Mike Pence and his coronavirus task force for not talking with local officials before implementing the screening program.
Thousands of travellers were forced to wait in exceedingly long lines, congregating in concourses and putting themselves and their loved ones at greater risk of exposureLori Lightfoot, Chicago mayor
State and local officials could have offered “concrete suggestions” for how the program could have been implemented with the least disruption, she said, but the administration acted unilaterally.
“Thousands of travellers were forced to wait in exceedingly long lines, congregating in concourses and putting themselves and their loved ones at greater risk of exposure,” Ms Lightfoot said.
Passengers on Sunday were more likely to be kept on their planes to manage the flow into the customs area, she said.
Texas governor Greg Abbot, a Republican and strong supporter of the president, tweeted on Sunday that the lines in Dallas were “unacceptable & I’m working hard to get it fixed”.
He said he had contacted the head of Homeland Security, acting secretary Chad Wolf.
Mr Pritzker said on NBC’s Meet The Press that the administration should have bolstered staffing at the receiving airports in anticipation of long lines.
But instead, he said, passengers “were stuck in a small area, hundreds and hundreds of people, and that’s exactly what you don’t want in this pandemic”.
President Donald Trump defended the administration’s actions in a tweet on Sunday.
“We are doing very precise medical screenings at our airports. Pardon the interruptions and delays, we are moving as quickly as possible, but it is very important that we be vigilant and careful. We must get it right. Safety first!” he wrote.
Acting Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Mark Morgan said in a written statement on Sunday that the agency was making improvements to its procedures, but that it must “balance our efficiencies with ensuring the health and safety of all American citizens through enhanced medical screening”.
Travellers from restricted countries in Europe, China and Iran are being advised to self-quarantine for 14 days after reaching their final destination in the US.
The death toll in the United States has climbed to 61, while infections near 3,000.
Meanwhile, the governors of Illinois and Ohio confirmed on Sunday that their states’ presidential primaries would continue as scheduled on Tuesday, amid the continuing outbreak.