When Soula Motamed started her semester abroad in Milan, Italy, earlier this year, she expected to study Italian language and cooking, along with global finance. She looked forward to making day trips in and beyond Milan, to seeing a country she had never been to before.]
Within weeks, the 20-year-old University of Illinois student from Queens watched as the coronavirus spread through Italy. At first, Motamed recalled, it didn’t seem serious. Then people began wearing masks, and grocery store shelves started to empty. Soon, classes were canceled, bars and restaurants were closed, and her apartment building was temporarily quarantined when a coronavirus case was confirmed.
When her program asked students to leave Italy, Motamed headed to Budapest, and then to Barcelona, hoping to salvage her time abroad.
Then came President Donald Trump’s directive to halt most travel from Europe. So, Motamed flew home on Friday. Her flight was mostly full. She went through Customs without any additional screening or questions.
Motamed said that even when glancing at her passport, no one questioned that she had been in two virus hotbeds — Spain and Italy. No one took her temperature. There was no mention of the coronavirus.
“I thought it was going to take a long time, and that it would be more thorough,” Motamed said. “It took longer for me to get my bags than to go through Customs.”
Thousands of international travelers have come through Kennedy Airport in recent weeks. Until the last few days, no one was screened. The traditional Customs questions, of course, have no bearing on whether passengers were carrying a virus, in addition to their bags.
The disturbing picture shines a spotlight on the need for more immediate attention to the airports and other points of entry.
In the days after Motamed arrived home, Customs and Border Protection stepped up its screening effort. Some of Motamed’s friends got stuck in lengthy lines and crowded halls, particularly at Chicago’s O’Hare International — a frightening scene that many fear could help to spread the virus.
The lack of preparation and common sense here is astounding. Customs officials must put more extensive screening and crowd-control measures into place. They must suggest self-quarantine steps when necessary.
Cruise ships are still at sea — and those passengers, if and when they disembark or travel back to the United States, must be screened and, in some cases, must self-quarantine. At New York area airports, Customs port directors should utilize Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police and other staff to assist, particularly in crowd-control and social-distancing efforts. This must not turn into a turf issue; it must be one where every agency does its part, together.
And they should look to other countries for advice and best practices. Motamed said she was more thoroughly screened as she traveled through Europe than she was entering the United States.
Customs officials, who denied requests for an interview, said in a statement they’re ramping up staffing and developing plans to handle the crowds. The Port Authority is offering guidance and assistance.
When Motamed landed Friday night, her father gave her a mask and drove her home. By choice, she went into self-isolation, moving only between her room and the bathroom, and she was tested for the coronavirus. Those results aren’t in yet.
Said Soula’s mom, Evie Hantzopoulos: “I can’t wait to give [her] the biggest hug.”
Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday's editorial board.