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There are several claims online that international travelers returning from Europe were kept waiting in densely packed queues at JKF and O'Hare airports, due to COVID-19 screenings, on the weekend of March 14 2020.

Tweet from @kr3at

JFK airport in New York City has turned into a #CoronaVirus breeding ground along side O'Hare in Chicago. Crowds waiting in a very long lines in close quarters with thousands of people to clear US Customs' useless enhanced #COVID19 screening measures.

Photo of queues Photo of queues

Tweet from @JoshuaPotash

Right now at O’Hare airport in Chicago:

Thousands of people are waiting for hours due to “enhanced screening" procedures.

[A video was attached to this tweet]

Since it is pretty easy to fake such a claim by taking pictures from a different timeframe, different place, or different context (e.g. these travellers might all be from Australia), I'd like to know specifically if it's true that people

  1. At O'Hare and JFK
  2. coming from Europe
  3. after the travel ban went into effect
  4. were kept in densely packed queues
  5. at least in part due to COVID-19 screening.
  • 39
    Given it is a pretty prosaic claim that travellers are queued at airports, and there is photographic and video evidence, what would it take to convince you that the claim is true (or false)? I am trying to imagine what an answer would look like. – Oddthinking Mar 15 at 13:00
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    I don't fly much, but when I have, I'm not sure these crowds look any different than usual. Especially at highly trafficked airports like JFK and O'Hare. Airports were probably bound to be a "breeding ground" anyway, along with other hubs for public transportation. – PC Luddite Mar 15 at 15:51
  • 2
    Is there any reason to disbelieve this?? – Daniel R Hicks Mar 15 at 22:51
  • 7
    @Peter in my experience, lines that bad are normal at passport control (hours of wait isn't, but a photograph like that can't really distinguish between a 4-hour-long line and a half-hour long line anyway!) – hobbs Mar 16 at 1:34
  • 1
    @hobbs 2-3 hours of waiting are totally normal at JFK passport control. – Tgr Mar 16 at 13:49
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tl;dr: I have found plenty of references to unusually long lines, and a complete absence of "social distancing" in these lines. O'Hare Intl. Airport's Twitter account and The Washington Post explicitly claim that the medical screening is to blame for the wait times, while others imply it. Until there's a retraction or update to those stories, that makes the claim likely to be true.

O'Hare Intl. Airport on Twitter:

Attention travelers: customs processing is taking longer than usual inside the Federal Inspection Services (FIS) facility owing to enhanced #COVID19 screening for passengers arriving from Europe. Twitter

CNN about airports in Dallas, Chicago and New York:

As Americans are being urged to keep their distance from one another, travelers returning on flights from Europe say they are being made to wait for hours in close quarters at US airports to get screened for coronavirus. When they arrived at airports in Dallas, Chicago and New York, they faced long lines and confusion, several travelers told CNN. [...]

Karen Rogers, a passenger returning from Paris by way of London, had been waiting in line for at least five hours to be screened at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and was told she would have at least another hour to go, she said Saturday night. [...]

Passengers first wait in line to have their passports checked and to turn in a declaration form and medical forms for those returning from Europe, South Korea, Iran and China, Schmidt said. Then they are taken to a separate line to undergo a screening and temperature check. [...] - CNN March 15 2020

Washington Post about O’Hare and "other U.S. airports":

Scores of anxious passengers said they encountered jam-packed terminals, long lines and hours of delays as they waited to be questioned by health authorities at some of the busiest travel hubs in the United States.

The administration announced the “enhanced entry screenings” Friday as part of a suite of travel restrictions and other strategies aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Passengers on flights from more than two dozen countries in Europe are being routed through 13 U.S. airports, where workers are checking their medical histories, examining them for symptoms and instructing them to self-quarantine.

But shortly after taking effect, the measures designed to prevent new infections in the United States created the exact conditions that facilitate the spread of the highly contagious virus, with throngs of people standing shoulder to shoulder in bottlenecks. - Washington Post March 15 2020

CBS about O'Hare:

As weary travelers returned to the U.S. amid coronavirus-related travel restrictions, they were greeted with packed, hourslong waits for required medical screenings at airports.

Posts on social media indicated passengers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport waited upward of four hours in winding lines - CBS March 15 2020

New York Post about JFK, Newark:

Americans returning from Europe found themselves in a crowded hell of delays and long lines Saturday night at the 13 airports selected to handle their incoming flights under new rules enacted by the Trump administration to combat the spread of the coronavirus. - New York Post March 15 2020

Bloomberg about O'Hare:

Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was among those overwhelmed Saturday with passengers, including many returning from Europe, who faced new screening measures hastily announced earlier last week.

The crowds of anxious travelers were a stark contrast to the increasingly loud calls for people to practice “social distancing” as a way to get ahead of the spread of the coronavirus and buy fragile health care systems time. - Bloomberg March 15 2020

USA Today about "major airports":

U.S. travelers flying back from Europe were greeted with snaking lines and hours-long waits at major airports as expanded coronavirus screenings required by the government's new European travel restrictions took effect. - USA Today March 15 2020

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  • 4
    There's also this tweet by the Acting Secretary of DHS: "DHS is aware of the long lines for passengers who are undergoing increased medical screening requirements" and his remarks on the subject today, for those who want a government source. – Zach Lipton Mar 16 at 7:05
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    "Morning Edition" on NPR this morning interviewed a woman who was stuck in one of these crowds. I'll bet it will be repeated on "All Things Considered" this afternoon. – Barmar Mar 16 at 14:36
  • Pritzker and Lightfoot (governor/mayor of Illinois/Chicago) have also been actively tweeting on this as well – eps Mar 16 at 15:47

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