The Implementation of COVID-19 Travel Ban

My experience traveling home from Ireland 

By Nyan Pendyala

Photo by: Madeleine Maguire, Unsplash

On the night of March 11, 2020, I was busy preparing my study abroad apartment on the outskirts of Dublin to accommodate some friends visiting over St. Patrick’s Day weekend. After assembling some makeshift couches in my  kitchen, I went to bed only to be awakened early next morning by a friend’s phone call, alerting me to the new travel ban for Europe. Still half-asleep, I did not fully process the news until later when I read numerous text messages from other friends, canceling their weekend visit to Dublin.  

I was confused as to its implications to my study abroad program in Ireland, as Ireland and the U.K. were not included under the travel ban. Eventually, an email from my school, Indiana University, provided me with the opportunity to return home early due to the unstable nature of the situation. While many of my IU classmates across Europe were busy booking the next available flight home, I was deliberating when to return giving consideration to the increased congestion at the airports immediately following the announcement of the travel ban.  With thousands of travelers rushing home from all over Europe, I was concerned about the high probability of COVID-19 exposure. I booked a flight for Wednesday March 18th, 2020 to avoid the crowds and the lines. 

With my travel plans booked, I attempted to enjoy my last few days in Ireland, and while hiking in Bray with my friend, I received an email from Delta notifying me of my flight’s cancellation.  Hence, I was forced to fly back to the U.S. on Monday, March 16th and experienced the conditions that I had anticipated. I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other travelers for seven hours at the Dublin Airport. 

Given my airport experience, my family and I decided that I would isolate myself in our basement and follow CDC recommendations assuming that I was exposed to the virus. On Thursday, March 26th, I woke up after eight hours of sleep but felt exhausted. After participating in some virtual meetings to work on my class projects, I attempted a workout circuit that I had been doing in my basement since returning home, only to find myself out of breath after the first set.  

This had never happened before, so I called my doctor. Upon reviewing my symptoms via a video call and learning about my recent travel, he prescribed a test for COVID-19. On the morning of March 30th , I left my basement for the first time in fourteen days. The results came back two days later and I tested positive for COVID-19. 

Given the number of days that had passed since my return home and my positive test results, the Allegheny County Health Department hypothesized that I was infected with the disease while traveling back. This confirmed our suspicion and validated my family’s strict implementation of isolation protocols. After hanging up the phone, I pictured myself sitting on the floor of the Dublin U.S. Preclearance Checkpoint for hours, surrounded by hundreds of people. At that moment, I realized that there was a breakdown in the implementation of the travel ban. 

Eschewing all political beliefs and media bias, President Trump’s decision to restrict travel to the U.S. was the correct decision. However, having experienced its implementation, I do not believe that there was enough consideration given to the consequences of such a decision and its impact on the workflow at various airports. While the various government agencies (State, Homeland Security, CDC, etc.) must have anticipated the increase in volume of travelers that would ensue in the days prior to the ban taking effect, they did not take any measures to prevent people from standing in close proximity for hours. 

The lack of planning further exacerbated the situation particularly at U.S. Preclearance Checkpoints, which are outposts that the Department of Homeland Security has established at select airports (i.e. Dublin, Toronto, Abu Dhabi, etc). These checkpoints are not nearly large enough nor staffed to implement complex COVID-19 prevention protocols. Moreover, these outposts could not provide CDC personnel to screen travelers.  However, the travel restrictions mandated that all passengers gain CDC clearance to board a U.S. bound flight.

 As a result, the over-extended immigration agents admitted passengers in waves to a security room that held about 50 or so passengers at a time in close quarters. The agents then had to call passengers one by one to merely inquire about their well-being, as their lack of medical training prevented them from taking the passenger’s temperature. Provided the passenger was not coughing, they relayed the passenger’s self-assessment to a CDC Specialist in the U.S. The CDC official, relying on the information gave passengers clearance to enter the boarding area. Not only did this process cause extreme lines and a lack of social distancing but also required that immigration agents function outside of their area of expertise. This resulted in a system that did not effectively screen even passengers who may have experienced other symptoms of COVID-19, such as shortness of breath or fever. 

As a result, most passengers whether symptomatic or not were able to board their flights, further increasing the risk for all travelers. To make matters worse, since flights from preclearance airports operate as domestic flights, there was no further screening after the plane landed  in Boston. On international flights originating from airports without U.S. Preclearance, the results were not too dissimilar prior to the ban going into effect. Passengers landing at U.S. airports spent hours in immigration, packed shoulder to shoulder. While speaking with the County Health Department official regarding my diagnosis, I learned that I was one of many in the area who tested positive following two weeks of isolation after returning home from study abroad programs.

In order to remedy the massive influx of passengers at immigration checkpoints, our government could have employed a much different approach in the days prior to the travel restrictions going into effect. Given the inability of the U.S. Preclearance Points to practice the necessary protocols, the Department of Homeland Security could have closed all of them. With these closures, all international passengers would go through immigration and customs upon landing in the U.S., where CDC personnel could have conducted the mandated medical screening. 

While these changes would increase traffic at U.S. airports, the processing capacity of each airport could be easily calculated taking into account the increased time needed for medical screening. Based on these calculations, air traffic officials could have modified flight schedules or held passengers on their planes to ensure only passengers from the same flight would be in the immigration line at the same time. This would prevent passengers from standing in line for hours with passengers from other flights and travel origins. 

In the event a passenger exhibited symptoms or later tested positive, this approach would have made it easier to identify other passengers who may have been exposed and mandate self-isolation procedures. Given the lack of screening and testing in the U.S., such enhanced track and trace procedures were our best hope for limiting the spread of the disease. 

My analysis strictly focuses on the time period between the announcement of the travel ban and it going into effect. Nevertheless, this scenario provides a great opportunity to explore the pitfalls of making hasty decisions in crisis situations. Essentially, when big decisions are made in complex situations, we must walk-through the potential outcomes that may ensue. This will help us anticipate some of the unintended consequences and make the appropriate modifications to enable an effective implementation.