Commentary: At the airports, a clear view of Trump’s inept handling of coronavirus crisis

By Dahleen Glanton

Chicago Tribune

In Spain, the number of coronavirus cases soared to nearly 8,000 last week.

On Thursday, one of my friends boarded a plane in Madrid, and 10 hours later walked out of the airport in Chicago without being asked a single question.

No one tried to take her temperature. No one asked if she’d experienced any coronavirus symptoms. No one wanted to know if she’d had contact with someone who is sick.

If they had, she would have told them that she’d been in a hospital emergency room getting a checkup two days before she left Spain. In the waiting room, people were so sick that they were slumped over in chairs. A woman seated across from her was so ill that her eyes were rolling back in her head.

But no one asked. So she breezed through O’Hare International Airport, grabbed her luggage, hopped in a cab and went home to self-isolate for two weeks.

That was the day before Donald Trump’s confusing European travel rules went into effect Friday.

Only foreign nationals from Europe are banned from entering the United States, but Trump’s announcement last week was so riddled with misinformation and outright lies that it sent American citizens and green card holders traveling abroad scrambling to get home.

By Saturday, thousands of travelers returning to the U.S. were forced to spend hours waiting in line to be medically screened and possibly quarantined, exposing them to greater health risks.

The experiences my friend Nancy Stone, a retired Chicago Tribune photographer, had in Spain and the U.S. are glaring examples of how the virus is making its way around the world. The poorly planned travel ban is yet another indication of how inept the Trump administration has been in addressing the crisis.

Prior to the travel ban, untrained Customs and Border Patrol agents were told to look for symptoms of the virus in travelers arriving from high-risk countries. Obviously, that didn’t happen Thursday. Travelers at airports across the country reported similar experiences. Even some who were visibly ill walked right through customs.

Then came the other extreme.

By Saturday, the situation at O’Hare and 12 other major airports where Americans are being funneled from Europe was chaotic. The Department of Homeland Security inadequately staffed the checkpoints, forcing hordes of people into tight spaces, as public health officials called for “social distancing” to stem the spread of the virus.

Trump has mishandled the pandemic from the beginning, first by refusing to take the virus seriously and then by waiting weeks to put crucial testing measures into place to contain it. Many Americans are convinced that it could be just a matter of time before the U.S. becomes the next epicenter for this global crisis.

After a month in Madrid, Nancy planned to head to Jordan. She spent her birthday last week trying to get the required paperwork needed to enter the country. That meant spending the afternoon at a private hospital in Madrid, waiting to see a doctor who could examine her and provide a letter stating that she was virus-free.

“I’m in this waiting room with people who are looking awful, and I’m asking myself, ‘Why am I here? Why am I in a waiting room with people who are obviously ill?’” she told me over the phone.

It was clear, she said, that the doctor had no idea why she was there either. But for 300 euros ($334), he checked her temperature, blood pressure and listened to her lungs. Then he wrote a letter —in Spanish —for her to give to whomever needed it in Jordan.

That evening, the airline canceled her flight to Jordan. With the number of coronavirus cases doubled in Spain, she decided it was time to come home. So she booked a Thursday morning flight to Chicago.

Nancy considered herself lucky that she’d gotten her ticket before Trump announced the travel ban. Still, she was certain that she would run into problems at both the airport in Madrid and in Chicago.

By then, Spain had the second highest number of cases in Europe behind Italy, the majority of them in Madrid. The death toll had doubled to 120 within a week. The prime minister warned that the number of infections could climb to 10,000 by this week. The country was going on lockdown.

Nancy feared that the plane might not get to leave Madrid. And if it did, the additional screening would cause a nightmare at both airports.

“But when I got to the airport in Madrid, no one said anything,” she said. “I went through security without any problem. I went through passport control, and no one said anything to me at all. I got on the plane, and no one said anything.

“I’m thinking that I just have to resign myself to being at O’Hare for a long time, because surely they would be taking temperatures. On the plane, I’m giving myself this whole pep talk about being patient. I decided that whatever I had to go through would be worth it because I would be home and safe in my own condo.”

She breezed through O’Hare, using her Global Entry pass. The only question she was asked is whether she had brought any food items with her.

When she got home, she called the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find out how she could best quarantine herself. She was placed on hold for 45 minutes, and when someone finally answered, she was clueless. She placed Nancy on hold again, then came back and read the statement from the CDC’s website.

On Friday, Nancy fired off emails to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and her congressman, Rep. Mike Quigley, detailing her experience. She had not heard back from them by Sunday.

The way Nancy sees it, she’s on her own.

“There is zero guidance anywhere,” she said. “I’m trying to do the right thing, and they make it so hard. There’s no coordination.

“I just want someone to be the adult in the room and say, ‘Here’s the plan.’”

Sorry, my friend, our government has no sensible plan for this pandemic. To get through this crisis, people are going to have to rely on their own best judgment.

We can only hope that others are as conscientious as Nancy.

Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.