Chaos in Europe, and Anger, Over U.S. Travel Ban to Curb Coronavirus
PARIS — From airports and government offices to company boardrooms and stock exchange floors, turmoil and anger spread across Europe on Thursday after President Trump abruptly blocked most visitors from the Continent to the United States to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Mr. Trump’s 30-day travel ban, announced in a prime-time address Wednesday evening while most Europeans were asleep, began causing shock waves even before the sun rose across the Continent. In the hours that followed, the ban sent stocks tanking and tempers rising across European capitals.
In a strongly worded statement, the European Union said it “disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.’’ It said that it was “taking strong action to limit the spread’’ of the coronavirus, but that it “is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action.’’
In the predawn hours, initial confusion over the details of the restrictions — they take effect at midnight Friday — sent many travelers scrambling for fear that they would not be allowed into the United States. The rules apply to people who have been in Europe’s 26-country, passport-free zone over the previous 14 days, though not to Americans or permanent U.S. residents.
But even Americans, though exempt from the ban, rushed to make travel plans in anticipation of major flight cancellations or disruptions.
News of the ban was announced aboard some European-bound red-eye flights, leading American passengers to try to book passage back home while still over the Atlantic. Some Americans in Europe were awakened at night by relatives warning them of the ban. Others headed straight to airports once they woke up to the news.
“My parents called me at 2 a.m. this morning to ask me to return to the U.S. because of Trump’s ban on Europe,’’ Salomé Carasco, an American from Los Angeles who was studying marketing in Paris, said as she waited for her flight on Air France at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
“It’s O.K. but I feel like it’s a little too much,’’ she said, adding: “My school, my friends, my life is in Paris now. But my parents wanted me to come home. I don’t know how much they paid, but it was expensive.’’
A last-minute ticket to New York on Air France cost Brenden Jacobson — an American who had one week left in a long-planned, three-week holiday in France — $3,000.
“When we heard about the announcement this morning, we decided to go to the airport,’’ Mr. Jacobson said at Charles de Gaulle, adding, “It really stresses me.’’
Early in the morning, the scene at the airport was chaotic as Americans tried to book flights home. Long lines at ticketing counters quickly began to form at dawn, and some passengers were resigned to waiting hours, with no guarantee of obtaining a ticket.
A ticket agent for Delta said some panicked passengers had gone online in the hours after Mr. Trump’s announcement and spent tens of thousands of dollars for last-minute flights to the United States, only to try to change them for cheaper tickets at the airport later, without success.
Similar scenes were being played out across Europe.
In Poland, Jan Pytalski, a Polish citizen and a permanent U.S. resident on vacation in his native country, was roused at 2:30 a.m. by his wife, Sarah, who had just watched Mr. Trump’s address in the couple’s home in Washington, D.C.
“She sounded terrified,’’ Mr. Pytalski said.
Unable to change his return ticket on the airline’s overloaded website, Mr. Pytalski bought a new ticket.
“I was worried that there won’t be any more flights to the United States, and I did not want to risk leaving my wife alone, especially now that Washington is also becoming a cluster,’’ Mr. Pytalski said while in transit in Copenhagen.
For weeks, Mr. Trump played down the threat from the coronavirus, as his supporters, in Washington and in the right-wing U.S. news media, accused his opponents of exaggerating the risk as a way to hurt the president’s re-election chances.
By contrast, while the coronavirus is testing Europe’s cohesion and alliances, individual European leaders have relied on experts to react to outbreak, which the World Health Organization declared a pandemic this week. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany warned that the virus could infect 60 percent to 70 percent of people in Germany, attributing the bleak prediction to experts.
In France, the government of President Emmanuel Macron has been providing extensive daily updates on how health officials are trying to slow the spread of the virus — while warning the French that a full-blown epidemic, like the one across the border in Italy, is all but inevitable.
On Friday, many European leaders reacted angrily to what they perceived as Mr. Trump’s belated response to the crisis, which focused, in part, on blaming Europe.
In his address from the Oval Office on Wednesday, Mr. Trump pointedly described the source of the epidemic as a “foreign virus” and criticized the European Union for having “failed to take the same precautions” as he had in restricting travel from China, the source of the outbreak.
“As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe,’’ Mr. Trump said.
In fact, Europe has not been a major source of known infections so far in the United States.
“I know the temperament of Donald Trump, who by the way maybe reacted a bit later than some other countries, most notably European countries, on the issue,” Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, France’s junior minister for transportation, told reporters in Paris after a meeting with representatives from France’s transportation and travel businesses.
In Italy, the European nation hardest hit by the pandemic, Romano Prodi, a former prime minister and president of the European Union, defended his nation’s response. He said Mr. Trump had a right to do what he thought was best, though he thought there were “less damaging” alternatives than the travel ban.
“I think that coronavirus is already also an American problem,” Mr. Prodi said.
According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, an agency of the European Union, about 22,000 cases of infection and 943 deaths have been reported across Europe, including in Britain. Mr. Trump’s ban exempts Britain and Ireland.
Christian Drosten, head of virology at Berlin’s Charité research hospital, said that Mr. Trump’s decision was “pointless’’ and that it had been based on erroneous data.
“It is clear that testing in the U.S. started too late, and as a result, they don’t even know how many cases they have in their country,” Dr. Drosten said on Germany’s public broadcaster N.D.R. “So he can easily point the finger at European countries that have higher numbers of infections, due to consistent testing.”
With the sudden travel ban, many in Europe — a continent that in recent years has increasingly shut its doors to successive waves of migrants from the Middle East and Africa — abruptly found themselves in an unfamiliar position.
“The U.S. is doing to Europe what Europe did to southern countries in Africa and in the Middle East,’’ said Frédéric Keck, a French anthropologist specializing in pandemics.
“Europe is being ostracized,” he said.
At Charles de Gaulle, Camille Allain, a Frenchwoman, had just landed after a flight from Boston during which she had learned of the ban from the American seated next to her.
“It’s really strange to hear that I can’t enter a country because I’m French,’’ she said.
Ambre Eldin, a Frenchwoman flying to South Korea, where she is studying, compared Mr. Trump’s sudden ban to past American restrictions on foreigners from countries suspected of supporting terrorism.
“It’s not the first time that they’ve forbidden foreigners from going there,’’ Ms. Eldin said. “They often react that way.’’
But in France, as cases of infection continue to rise sharply, the idea of sealing off borders could gain support, especially among supporters of the far right, experts said.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, called for France to close its borders with Italy a few days after a cluster of cases was discovered in northern Italy in late February.
François Kraus, a political analyst at IFOP, a pollster, said that with Italy now under strict quarantine, “closing the borders is going to be a solution that will increasingly seem natural.”
“For a lot of French people, Italy — it’s France in 10 days,” he said.
Reporting was contributed by Eva Mbengue, Constant Méheut, Aurélien Breeden and Mike McIntire from Paris; Jason Horowitz from Rome; Monika Pronczuk from Brussels; Melissa Eddy from Berlin; Jack Ewing from Frankfurt; and Raphael Minder from Madrid.