As Bay Area residents scramble to make it home, some question health screening at SFO

When Rochelle Jue and Melissa Riches met in the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport on Monday, they bonded because both were trying to find their kids.

Jue’s son Simon was returning from India via Vancouver; Riches’ daughter Lindsay Millett from Brazil by way of Chicago. Both in their 20s, Simon Jue and Millett both had their mission service for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic. Whirlwind flights were booked over the weekend to get them back home — Jue to Livermore and Millett to Portola Valley.

“This is unprecedented,” Riches said.

Finally, Jue saw them: six young men dressed in white shirts, dress pants and ties. She ran to greet them, laughing and relieved, showing off the “Welcome Home Simon” sign, and handing out turkey and Swiss cheese sandwiches to the five others waiting for connecting flights to Salt Lake City. Riches found her daughter, too, and the families left. The travelers would self-isolate at home for 14 days.

They’re among scores of Americans scrambling to get back home as countries lock down, borders close and governments restrict travel, sometimes overnight. The U.S. now bans foreign nationals who have been in 30 countries in the past 14 days and screens Americans arriving from those countries for their health. The United States is not checking other passengers, to the concern of some, given the now-global reach of the pandemic.

The U.S. issued a global advisory not to travel, and flight demand has nosedived. At SFO, passenger traffic is down nearly half compared to March 2019, with the most cuts internationally, according to spokesman Doug Yakel. The airport is still running as an essential business under shelter-in-place public health orders, and air travel to and from the Bay Area has not been banned.

In fact, as the virus recedes in China, the country that first saw a deadly outbreak, signs of normal life are re-emerging, including travel. Air China and China Eastern have resumed flights to SFO, Yakel said, but added that federal restrictions apply. Foreign nationals who have been in 30 countries — China, Iran, United Kingdom, Ireland and the rest of Europe — in the past 14 days are banned from entering the U.S.

Americans who come from those countries are subjected to enhanced screening. SFO is one of 13 airports where such screening is performed, and only those airports can receive flights from the designated countries. Each passenger signs a Traveler’s Health Declaration, which is reviewed by Customs and Border Patrol. If travelers show symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, they’re referred to a separate station run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for medical assessment and quarantine. If they don’t, they’re encouraged to isolate at home for 14 days and monitor their health.

But there are no other standardized health or travel history checks for other passengers who may be coming from or have passed through other countries that also have high numbers of cases.

For Hilay Farooq, it was a “nightmare” getting out of Bali, where she’s been living for months, with her visiting cousin. She said that, in Indonesia, her temperature was taken going into the grocery store. She was so surprised there were no health checks at SFO that she even asked about it.

“They didn’t do any check, which is really weird,” Farooq said. “We came from Jakarta, which is infested, it’s so bad there, I’m really mad we didn’t get flagged to have any sort of check. It’s really aggravating to show up here and hear so much, things are really bad, but do absolutely nothing to check anybody.”

Farooq and her cousin were trying to find a nearby hotel where they could spend the night to avoid going home to protect their families in San Ramon — including Farooq’s grandmother, whose health is already poor.

“What’s the point of taking all these precautions for us to find a place to quarantine ourselves to keep our families safe if they don’t really care about anyone at all?” Farooq said. “It seems pointless.”

A spokesman for the border agency didn’t respond to specific requests about how passengers are screened and where, but said that only passengers from the 30 flagged countries are screened.

Tony Misch, who arrived from Europe last Thursday, said the health screening process at SFO was reassuring. He said they unloaded 10 people at a time from the plane and had an equivalent number of “really nice and efficient” CDC staff asking questions and having passengers fill out forms.

When going through customs, he was asked to press his hand on a screening pad, and raised alarm that it wasn’t being cleaned after each person’s touch. The Custom and Border Patrol spokesman did not respond to a specific question about cleaning such equipment.

Sean Luo, from Shanghai, also noticed that he had to touch four fingers to the pad and worried about how clean it was. Luo was one of few travelers in the nearly deserted International Terminal at SFO Monday who wasn’t coming home — he was leaving.

Because of the travel restrictions on Chinese citizens, he stayed in a hotel in Thailand (a country he’s never visited and where he knows no one) for 15 days so that he could enter the U.S. after a connection in Japan. He wanted to come to start a master’s program in computer science at a college in the Bay Area, despite the shelter-in-place order that has closed many schools and university campuses.

After leaving China, Luo was surprised his temperature wasn’t taken at SFO.

“I think it’s better to take a test of every passenger, it doesn’t need too much time. I think it’s necessary,” he said.

Other passengers, like Amanda Forth, were simply grateful to be home. After talking to her grandparents, 90 and 96, on a FaceTime call, she closed the doors of the jewelry store she opened in Bali just six months ago and packed her bags to try to get on the next flight back to the U.S.

“I just wanted to be near my family,” Forth said as she sat beside a cart full of luggage. She ended up booking a backup flight just in case but made it to Singapore, then SFO.

She said the humanity in the shared experience was incredible — with strangers helping each other get on flights and offering extra bags.

“You think you’re the only one feeling it: ‘Am I going to get home? Am I going to get on this flight?’ But every single human is having the same fear. If we’re stuck, we’re stuck together,” she said.

Forth even found an empty apartment through a connection with a college friend where she can quarantine herself for 14 days before moving in with her brother and his fiance in San Francisco.

“This was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life to travel and I’ve never seen more beautiful acts of humanity,” she said.

Chronicle staff writer J.D Morris contributed to this report.

Mallory Moench is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mallory.moench@sfchronicle.com Twitter:@mallorymoench

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