BARCELONA — As word of an impending ban on travel to the United States spread in this tourist mecca for Americans — where it was 2 a.m. when President Trump spoke from the Oval Office — panic spread among travelers frantic to return to the U.S. It fueled a chaotic scene before the sun had even come up Thursday morning in Barcelona’s El Prat airport as hundreds faced five-hour waits in lines to find that tickets home were either unavailable or unaffordable.
The frenzy was precipitated by omissions and misstatements in Trump’s address, which did not make clear that it would not apply to returning U.S. citizens, something that officials tried to clear up later that night and into Thursday morning. The focus of the president’s speech was on blasting European governments for not banning flights from China as he had, apparently blaming them for cases of the “foreign virus” coming into the U.S. and for “a number of new clusters in the United States [that] were seeded by travelers from Europe.”
In a dig against Europe’s open borders — within the European Union’s 26-country Schengen Area, travelers, whether in a car, train or plane, generally don’t pass through border crossings and passport controls — he said he was forced to respond with strong measures. “To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” starting on Friday at 11:59 p.m. ET.
Whether coming from Italy — with more than 12,000 cases and lockdowns now imposed countrywide — or from Spain, with more than 3,000 cases, up from 200 cases 10 days ago, or even from Lithuania, which has a mere three cases, foreign nationals, incoming flights, even cargo flights, would not be allowed to enter the U.S., Trump said, emphasizing the ban applied to “goods and cargo … anything coming from Europe to the United States.” Within the hour, a White House statement corrected Trump, saying that the restriction “only applies to the movement of human beings, not goods or cargo.”
The ban did not apply to the United Kingdom, however, and Ireland was also not among the 26 European countries listed, although there are numerous cases in both countries. Politico noted that Trump owns resorts in both places.
To judge from the airport chaos, nobody — from airlines to governments — had been given any advance warning on the matter. The European Commission this morning issued a rebuke, stating, “The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.” Whether at least some individual leaders were notified remains unclear.
“He gave us 48 hours to get back,” said Graydon Scofield-Swartz, an engineer from New York visiting his girlfriend, who’s been studying abroad in Barcelona. “It was like he designed this to create maximum panic.”
Binghamton University student Erin Aufrichtig and her friends had just come home from a night of tapas and sangria, when at about 3 a.m. their phones began ringing and beeping with messages from family and friends. “Come home now!” said some. “Will you be stuck there?” asked others. “We moved out of our apartment [where they’ve been living for months] in an hour,” Aufrichtig said, adding that she and two friends spent more than $1,000 for three last-minute tickets back to New York. “I had to pack clothes that were wet from the washer,” said her flatmate Callie Sacks.
Upon arriving at the airport at 4:30 a.m. and waiting in line for five hours, they discovered that the third-party online seller they’d used had overbooked: Their tickets weren’t valid. For the next four hours, Aufrichtig ran from ticket booth to ticket booth through the airport, lining up at Delta, United, American and Spanish airline Iberia, crying as she waited, and discovering again and again that their flights for Thursday and Friday were sold out. “And they said they wouldn’t be flying to the U.S. after Saturday.”
“Everything’s confusing — starting with what he meant by midnight on Friday,” she added. Miscommunication abounds, said those who were waiting: Airline employees give information that doesn’t match that on airline sites and doesn’t line up with the unclear policy dictated by Trump. Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf made an attempt at clarification, saying that U.S. citizens could return later than Friday “through select airports where the U.S. government has implemented enhanced screening procedures.” But he hasn’t yet specified what those airports are.
Travelers who could score a flight found prices were shooting through the roof — online sites were selling tickets from Barcelona for as much as $5,000 — and Scofield-Swartz said a family waiting in line ahead of him plunked down $15,000 to get on the next flight. At Paris’s Charles De Gaulle airport, passengers were reportedly paying as much as $20,000 a ticket.
Finally, Aufrichtig at least found some relief: A travel agent booked her a flight on Norwegian Air leaving Saturday — for nearly $900 one way. “So I think I have a ticket back,” she said, “but who knows?”
Jeremy Vidra, who manages food services at Ohio State University, flew in on Tuesday on a half-empty plane from New York and planned to stay a week — but he and his friend hightailed it back to the airport after being informed of a two-hour wait to get through to the airline on the phone. Even after hearing of Wolf’s somewhat more reassuring message, they didn’t want to risk going back after Friday. “We decided we’d better get out now. It’s chaotic with Trump — I’m not sure I trust what he will do next.”
Anxiety can be felt far beyond Barcelona’s airport. Even though Spanish health authorities have emphasized that residents stay calm — and have moved cautiously, when they move at all — unease is rippling across the country, including in Madrid, where panic buying is underway, schools are closed for two weeks, employees are urged to work from home and the Parliament shut down after 52 members of the ultraright Vox Party announced they were self-quarantining. The party’s executive director, Javier Ortega-Smith, announced he had tested positive for the virus — after attending a party rally of 9,000 in Madrid last weekend.
That city’s famed soccer team, Real Madrid, is also under self-quarantine, after discovering that a basketball player who also used their training center had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
In Valencia, authorities announced that the world-renowned festival Las Fallas, when towering effigies are burned all over town, was canceled this year.
Ada Colau, the generally unflappable mayor of Barcelona — where the City Council isn’t meeting for two weeks, after several members tested positive for the virus — announced “a slowdown” for the city, recommending that residents avoid crowds and that those who could work from home should do so. But Thursday afternoon, the regional government of Catalonia went further, announcing that schools and colleges would be closed for the next two weeks.
And tourism, that motor of the local and national economy, is down to a trickle. “Hotels have only 10 percent occupancy,” estimated a taxi driver en route to the airport, although some news reports put the rate at 20 to 30 percent. “There’s no work for us.” Passing the cruise ship marina, a different cabbie pointed out the window. “Usually there are at least three or four ships there. Today there’s only one. Tomorrow, I don’t think there will be any.”
On the upside, the City Council and local residents often complain that this Mediterranean city of 5.5 million is “over-touristed.” It seems that won’t be a problem this year.
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