The administration’s European travel ban, which President Donald Trump announced Wednesday and went into effect Friday night, sent Americans abroad scrambling to find plane tickets back home. U.S. officials eventually clarified that the ban didn’t apply to American citizens or permanent residents — but by then, panic-buying most likely inflated the number of people trying to reenter at once.
Starting at midnight Friday, the Trump administration will begin enforcing new travel restrictions on much of Europe, barring most foreign nationals and screening all Americans arriving from countries identified as hot spots for the COVID-19 virus.
The action comes two days after the World Health Organization declared the virus a global “pandemic” and has overwhelmed the health care systems of Italy and China.
The administration also dramatically narrowed the number of places where air travelers returning from Europe could enter the U.S. — currently just 13 airports. At the same time, Customs and Border Protection and health officials on Friday began doing “enhanced screening” for those passengers, consisting of temperature checks and questions about travel history and symptoms, without having enough staff on hand to process them quickly.
President Donald Trump announced the move just Wednesday in an Oval Office address in which he largely overstated the true impact of his own travel restrictions. The White House order that followed outlined several categories of travelers exempt from the ban, including U.S. citizens, their close relatives, and green cardholders.
Those allowed to enter the country will be directed to 13 airports where healthcare workers are stationed to conduct basic medical exams and ask questions about medical history, symptoms and travel history. Anyone allowed to proceed to their final destination will be instructed to self-quarantine.
In the early weeks of the outbreak, the administration was slow to ramp up screening at international airports, even for travelers re-entering the United States from known coronavirus hot spots. Harvard public health researchers warned in early March that the screening procedures in place then would miss as many as two-thirds of U.S.-bound passengers entering the U.S.
Now, public health officials are expressing concern that the passengers crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in airport screening lines are at higher risk for catching and then spreading the virus.
“It’s not good public health policy to have crowds of people in tight spaces, especially people who are returning from places where we know there’s widespread transmission occurring,” said John Auerbach, president, and CEO of Trust for America’s Health. He added that there should be serious consideration of the unintended consequences of the policies being implemented.
It remains unclear whether those referred to CDC at airports will be given a COVID-19 test. The CDC has not responded to multiple requests for comment on airport screenings. At last check, CBP had referred more than 63,000 travelers from Iran and China for CDC “enhanced health screenings.”
Customs checks will stay relatively unchanged for travelers arriving from places other than the 28 countries identified in the White House orders, according to a Customs and Border Protection official handling virus response efforts.