MADRID: Weary and confused travellers, many wearing face masks, rushed to board flights from European airports to the United States on Thursday (Mar 12) after US 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 US 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.
US backpacker Keasy, from San Francisco, said: "It kind of ruined my travel plans. I arrived here yesterday and so in 24 hours everything has changed."
Though American citizens are exempt from the travel ban, she and many others said they preferred to return home in case the restrictions are expanded or for fear of contracting coronavirus while in Europe.
Cristina Elvira, a pensioner travelling to Miami, felt relieved to leave Spain, where new cases have increased exponentially over the past days.
"We are lucky to be able to leave Europe," Elvira said as she checked in for her flight, one of around 20 from Spain to the United States scheduled for Thursday.
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.
"A BIG MESS"
Many travellers, however, were critical of Trump's decision and his lack of coordination with European authorities.
"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.
Trump has said he had to act because the European Union had failed to take adequate measures to stop the coronavirus. The EU dismissed his comments and criticised the lack of consultation from the US side.
Miguel Paracuellos, a Spaniard who works in the United States, said Trump was trying to compensate for his failure to expand testing and screening programmes at home. "He is blaming an external enemy, in this case Europe," he said.
Jon Lindfors, an American traveller 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 traveller 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 cancelled 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.