By Clara-Laeila Laudette and Tangi Salaün
MADRID/PARIS (Reuters) – Weary and confused travelers, many wearing face masks, rushed to board flights from European airports to the United States on Thursday after U.S. President Donald Trump announced sweeping travel restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus.
His 30-day travel order applies to citizens of 26 European countries but excludes Britain and Ireland as well as American citizens. It takes effect from midnight on Friday.
“It caused a mass panic,” said 20-year-old Anna Grace, a U.S. student on her first trip to Europe who changed her booking to fly home from Madrid’s Barajas airport instead of going on to France. Her friends were less successful in rebooking flights.
Though American citizens are exempt from the travel ban, Grace and many others said they preferred to return home in case the restrictions are expanded or for fear of contracting coronavirus while in Europe.
“We are nervous that we won’t be able to get back into the country,” said Atlantia resident Jay Harrison, 29, hoping to board a flight in Brussels. “If it’s going to be another 30 days and we’re stranded, it’s going to be very difficult, very expensive and just tough to get back in and tough to live with.”
Paola Mesa, 29, a Spanish woman flying from Barcelona to San Francisco, said she backed Trump’s ban on travel from Europe.
“It’s what Spain should have done before,” she said. The death toll from coronavirus in Spain nearly doubled to 84 on Thursday and the number of cases rose to nearly 3,000.
Trump says he had to act as the European Union had failed to take adequate measures to stop the coronavirus. The EU dismissed his comments and criticized the lack of consultation from the U.S. side.
“A BIG MESS”
Many travelers, however, were critical of Trump’s decision.
“It’s ridiculous. Why do we impose a ban now when the virus is already in the United States?” said Leo Mota, 24, who had just arrived at Paris’s main international airport, Roissy Charles de Gaulle, from Los Angeles.
Miguel Paracuellos, a Spaniard who works in the United States, said Trump was trying to compensate for his failure to expand testing and screening programs at home. “He is blaming an external enemy, in this case Europe,” he said.
Jon Lindfors, an American traveler in Paris, was equally scathing about Trump, who will seek re-election in November.
“Trump said it’s not a health crisis but it is, that it’s not an economic crisis but it is. We don’t believe what Trump says anymore,” Lindfors said.
A Delta crew member, who asked not to be named, said Trump’s travel ban had caught the airline off-guard.
“It’s going to be a big mess… We were not expecting something like that. We don’t have all the details to know what it means for us and for the company,” the crew member said.
At Rome’s Fiumicino airport, largely empty due to draconian measures taken by Italy to combat coronavirus, one Italian traveler just back from New York said the United States would soon face the disruption Europe is now experiencing.
“(In New York)… there were only a few flights canceled or delayed… They don’t understand the situation yet,” said Giuseppe Riccio, who wore a face mask. “There are no controls in place, shops are full of people.”
Gregory and Ada Goldberg, an American couple from San Francisco, were trying to bring forward their flight home from Barcelona but were not getting much help at the airport.
“This was meant to be two weeks of pleasant vacation but it has become a nightmare,” said 69-year-old Ada.
(Additional reporting by Marco Trujillo, Ingrid Melander and Emma Pinedo in Madrid, Joan Faus in Barcelona, Richard Lough in Paris; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Janet Lawrence)