Travelers rush into US ahead of ban on Europe arrivals

by Peter HUTCHISON
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Travellers arrive at Los Angeles International Airport, one day before a US travel ban hits 26 European countries

New Yorker John Eckard, 66, was sleeping soundly at his son's home near Frankfurt, Germany when he was startled by a 3:00 am call from his wife saying he "had to fly back now."

"I was half-asleep but went straight on the Singapore Airlines website," said Eckard after he landed in the United States on Thursday.

"I think I must have got the last ticket because I was sitting in the last seat in the last row."

President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced a ban on entry into the United States of people coming from continental Europe to diminish the spread of the new coronavirus.

Travelers who had hurried to leave Europe before the travel ban is implemented on Friday braced themselves for chaos at New York's JFK but on their arrival found the airport calmly serene.

Eckard said he was "very sad" to be cutting short his visit to see his grandson, but was concerned that Trump's month-long measure to combat the coronavirus spread would be extended.

"I could have stayed for another 30 days but I was thinking that would have probably turned into 60 days and that I could still be here come New Year's Eve," he told AFP at JFK's Terminal 4.

Travelers milled around and check-in queues were short, with the only hint that something was out of the ordinary being the few passengers wearing surgical masks.

"On the plane, there were rumors that we would be swabbed and have our temperatures taken when we landed but it's quiet. I was expecting to turn up at a mad house," added the semi-retired deli store manager.

- 'Uneasiness and anxiety' -

Peter Stults, a 37-year-old graphic designer from New York, was on the same flight as Eckard.

He ended a business trip and vacation to Germany two days early following Trump's shock announcement late Wednesday.

"I wanted to stay longer but it (the ban) didn't come as a surprise. The theme over there (in Germany) was it was coming, not if but when," he told AFP.

Newly-arrived German tourists Niklas Schliesmeier, 25, and Sabrina Schwichtenberg, 23, were determined not to let any travel restrictions ruin a week's holiday in the Big Apple.

"When we heard the announcement we were extremely nervous, so we checked our flights.

"When we saw that they weren't cancelled we're like, let's try to go there and until we came out from immigration we were still not 100 percent sure that we would be allowed to enter," said Schliesmeier.

He added that the couple were "relieved" and "looking forward to a nice week in New York City."

They may not be able to do everything they had hoped to do, however.

"We are worried about closed museums but are hopeful we will have a nice week. We didn't think about cancelling."

New York's theaters and many museums were closed from Thursday, and most gatherings of over 500 people have been banned, including the annual St Patrick's Day parade.

The pair laughed when asked if they were worried whether they could make it back to Germany.

"That's our next problem. We'll face it in a week," said Schliesmeier.

But over at Terminal 1, Oskar and Juliane, also from Germany, were feeling anxious about whether they would get back home.

They came to JFK to see if they could get on an earlier flight than their booking next week.

"We came here to get information because the hotline is always blocked," 28-year-old Oskar told AFP, declining to give his surname.

"There is a feeling of uneasiness and anxiety not knowing what might happen."

At Washington's Dulles airport, John Gover, a British pensioner who lives in the south of France with his wife, was hoping for a last-minute seat on a flight back to Nice.

"We have a flight next week, but because there aren't many flights coming over, we assume there won't be any planes going back," he said.

International travellers arrive at Los Angeles International Airport on March 12, 2020, one day before a US flight travel ban hits 26 European countries

Passengers wearing masks speak with a staff member at Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle airport in France, after the US president announced a shock 30-day ban on travel from mainland Europe to the US

New York banned public gatherings of more than 500 people, including shows in Manhattan's iconic Broadway theater district