US President Donald Trump and other US officials appealed for patience as travellers returning to the United States over the weekend were met by long lines and massive delays at major airports so they could be screened for the coronavirus.
"Pardon the interruptions and delays," Trump said in a Twitter post. "We are moving as quickly as possible, but it is very important that we be vigilant and careful."
Authorities are conducting "very precise" medical screenings at airports, Trump tweeted, adding safety comes first.
His comments echoed those of officials from the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection. They acknowledged delays caused by a new airport testing policy, but said it was necessary to protect Americans from the virus, which has rapidly spread around the globe.
The Trump administration last week imposed restrictions on travellers coming from continental Europe, and on Saturday extended the ban to Britain and Ireland. US citizens and permanent residents would still be able to return home, but would be funneled through specific airports, Pence said.
American Airlines said it plans to cut 75 percent of its international flights through to 6 May and ground nearly all its widebody fleet, according to the CBC.
It will cut nearly all flights to Asia, Australia, Europe, South America and New Zealand, while still operating two flights a day to London and just three to Tokyo.
"I understand this is very stressful," Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said on Twitter. "We will be increasing capacity, but the health and safety of the American public is first & foremost."
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The medical screenings come in addition to the usual immigration and customs checks for travellers entering from abroad. They take about one minute each, Wolf said.
Conditions were improving at several airports by Sunday morning, Acting Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan said in a statement.
"Our goal is and remains to process passengers as safely and efficiently as possible," Morgan said.
Officials were responding to widespread complaints from passengers who said they had to wait on hours-long lines to enter the United States this weekend.
Some expressed concern that the long waits in heaving crowds could put them at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus, which causes the sometimes-deadly respiratory illness Covid-19. In the United States, the disease has infected about 3000 people and killed at least 59.
"Current wait time over 3 hours. Coughing and sneezing..." wrote Twitter user Jeffrey Barnett. He posted a photo of people waiting shoulder to shoulder at DFW International Airport in Texas on Saturday night.
Twitter user Sophie Bair posted a video of huge lines at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport the same evening, saying she had waited for four hours.
"Pics can't even capture the scale of this," she wrote. "We've had to wait in 3 different stages of lines."
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 long waits prompted Illinois Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker to take to Twitter on Saturday night to slam Republican US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for what he called their "unacceptable" handling of the situation.
"These crowds are waiting to get through customs, which is under federal jurisdiction," he wrote.
The concerns were shared by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, who said the crowded conditions at the airports were "not helpful" to efforts to contain the virus.
"I'm not going to make policy with you, but if you can possibly lessen that crowding one way or the other, we should do it," Fauci said on Sunday CNN's "State of the Union" program.