The stark differences in coronavirus screening at airports in Shanghai and Washington, DC

Mar 19, 2020

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For the past week, travelers from around the globe have scrambled to make last-minute return flight arrangements from work trips or vacations that were cut short. As the threat of coronavirus becomes more real, people want to be sure they can get home — or travel to their loved ones to help them weather these unpredictable times.

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It’s been fascinating to hear travelers’ stories about their different experiences as they arrive at various airports around the world. Some airports, including many in China, are meticulously screening passengers before even letting them on flights, and as they arrive back into the country. At airports in the United States, the “welcome home” has ranged from absolutely no questions asked about recent travel to hours-long lines dangerously crowded with travelers, all so they can have their temperature taken before being allowed off the property.

Today we’ll hear two stories: One from Fei Cao, an American living in Shanghai, and another from TPG contributor Ethan Steinberg. Ms. Cao was on vacation and traveling back to Shanghai, while Steinberg, who lives in Shanghai, was returning to the U.S. to be with family.

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In This Post

Traveling to Shanghai

Fei Cao, a long-time TPG reader, is a U.S. citizen who relocated to Shanghai in September with her husband. Just before the big move, they took a two-month-long vacation funded entirely by points and miles.

They were visiting the U.S. with plans to return to Shanghai on March 11. Here’s how that unfolded.

The U.S. leg of the trip

The first leg of their trip was on American Airlines, in economy, from Miami (MIA) to Houston (IAH).

“From IAH, we took EVA to Shanghai (SHA) with a layover at Taipei (TPE). Our EVA flight was booked in premium economy and upgraded to Laurel Business class with points transferred from our Citi account,” Cao said.

The mood on the aircraft “was a mix of nervous [and] nonchalant,” she observed. “The couple next to us wiped their seat prior to sitting. However, no one wore masks or took precautions. Overall, the domestic portion of our flight was not very different than our previous flights.”

“We did use the Amex [Centurion Lounge] in MIA; it was relatively empty compared to our previous visits,” said Cao, who couldn’t recall if there were hand sanitizers at the front desk. At the EVA lounge in Taipei, on the other hand, Cao and her husband said, “attendants enforced strict hand hygiene and did not check us in until we cleaned our hands.”

Related: How to ward off coronavirus in a hotel room

Boarding an EVA flight for Shanghai via Taipei

The couple began to notice upgraded precautions at IAH when checking in for their long-haul flight. “At IAH, all the EVA crew and staff wore face masks and gloves. The business class check-in staff member was wearing a mask but she had a runny nose and was coughing, which really horrified us.” Cao said that, of the entire trip, this caused the most anxiety.

“Our flight from IAH to TPE was about 80% filled in the business-class cabin. We estimate that the economy-class cabin was about 70 to 80% filled as well,” she estimated.

“The economy-class cabin from Taipei to Shanghai was about filled. We think it’s because many Chinese nationals are returning to China due to worsening viral conditions elsewhere, and TPE was one of the few ports that did not require quarantine in China. However, this policy has changed since we took our flight — when we landed in SHA, Beijing changed the rules to have mandatory quarantine for all international inbound passengers.”

Cao said the passengers were generally not nervous. “We saw a lot more passengers wearing face masks and gloves on this flight, as compared to our domestic flight. In business class, almost everyone wiped down their seats before sitting. Once the flight took off, we didn’t feel much different.”

“We had a 10-hour layover in Taipei and, during our transit, we exited the airport (the screening was not very extensive and exit was extremely smooth) and stayed at a nearby Novotel a subway stop away. Our reentry to the airport was also extremely easy because the airport was pretty empty.”

The next part of the journey is when the couple again felt a sense of anxiety.

“On our flight from Taipei to Shanghai, people were more nervous. Everyone was in gloves and face masks. The majority of people also had goggles. Some people wore ‘hazmat suits’ that ranged from raincoats to overalls.”

“We felt more anxious about this trip than our previous travel experiences,” Cao said. “Our anxiety was mainly because if we were to contract the virus during our travel, we would be forced to stay in a government quarantine facility and not be able [to] self-quarantine at home.”

Related: These are the global coronavirus travel restrictions by country

Changes to inflight service

TPG was curious if it was business as usual in the air, or if the couple noticed any differences from previous travels.

“We flew business class on EVA from Paris (CDG) to Taipei before, so [we] had a point of reference,” Cao said. “Our IAH to TPE flight was very similar to our previous experience, with the exception that all the flight attendants wore face masks, gloves and some even wore eye goggles. The level of service was still excellent … we were offered a welcome drink, snacks, turndown service [and] cabin crew would often check in on us when we were awake. Same as amenities: We were offered pajamas as well as amenity kit.”

But, “the flight from TPE to PVG was completely different,” Cao noted. “There was no meal service available, we were told this is due to the virus situation in China. In flight, the cabin crew gave us a prepackaged bag with water, apple juice, cake and cookies.”

Cao said there weren’t amenity bags, blankets or slippers waiting for her and her husband in the business class seats. “To get them,” Cao said, “we had to specifically request them. The overall service from TPE was totally different. We chalked it up to the airlines wanting to decrease the amount of contact between the crew and passengers.”

Landing in Shanghai

Upon arrival in Shanghai, the couple witnessed the lengths the Chinese government is going to in the hopes of curtailing the spread of coronavirus. They were asked to fill out an extensive health declaration form.

China exit/entry health form. (Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
China exit/entry health form. (Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)

And, here’s more information about the entry process into Shanghai as of March 17:

Shanghai re-entry guidance as of March 17, 2020. (Image courtesy of Ethan Steinberg)
Shanghai re-entry guidance as of March 17, 2020. (Image courtesy of Ethan Steinberg)

“When we landed in Shanghai at 6 p.m., our captain made an announcement saying that health inspectors will come on board,” Cao said.

(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)

“All the inspectors were in hazmat suits — every official [we] encountered from this point [wore] complete hazmat suits,” recalled Cao. “One inspector walked around the cabin (we think to look over passengers to make sure no one was visibly sick) while the other inspectors reviewed the manifest. They made an announcement in Chinese and English for all passengers to go back to their seats and wait to be called. During this time, the first inspector came back and told his colleagues in Chinese that there was a passenger from the U.S. who had a cough; they conferred a bit and led her out by herself.”

(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)

“After that passenger was led out, they called a series of names to line up and be inspected. The first group of passengers all had travel history in Europe within the past 14 days,” said Cao.

“We were called as part of the second group: all passengers who had travel history in the U.S. We assumed the order was by the severity of virus infections in the passenger’s countries of travel. When we got to the front, the officials looked at our health declarations, measured our temperatures (one of many times) and asked us if we were symptomatic. They recorded our temperatures and we went off the plane and waited near the gate with the rest of the people [who] were called up with us. According to the health officials, we were to wait there until the first group cleared the next phase of the health exam.”

(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)

Cao said they waited about an hour before arriving at the health check area. “There, we underwent temperature monitoring (second temperature check) and had to wait in line to be individually interviewed by health officials. While waiting for our extensive health check, multiple officers in hazmat suits walked around to give QR codes to scan on the Chinese messaging program WeChat to fill out additional health info, travel info as well as information on our hotel [or] place of residence. For foreigners who don’t have the app, it would be difficult to do a lot of this.”

“The line moved slowly, but after about another hour, we got to the front and we were individually interviewed by an official who asked us in-depth questions about specific cities we were in, sick contacts, occupation contacts, symptoms within the past 14 days. They also asked about our living arrangements (hotel, apartment, lease, etc).”

Cao said officials then gave every passenger a sticker. “[A green sticker] for anyone who hadn’t visited a high-risk country, yellow sticker for anyone who was low risk but had been to a high-risk country (we were yellow due to being in the U.S.), a red sticker was for anyone who was symptomatic or high risk. Green sticker travelers were able to exit as normal and return home, red sticker travelers went to automatic government quarantine.”

(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)

Since the couple’s passports were labeled with yellow stickers, they went to a special customs area to have another temperature check. Then, they proceeded through customs as normal.

(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)

Cao said, “Because we’ve been in and out of China a lot, our process was fast since they have our fingerprint and face recognition in their system.”

(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)

Cao felt good about the process — even if it delayed their re-entry into China. “While extensive and really inconvenient, we felt confident that because the Chinese government enforced these measures, they were able to keep the virus rate in check. The amount of manpower and coordination that went into this is pretty incredible and we feel relatively safe.”

(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)

“Due to our yellow sticker, we couldn’t leave the airport on our own and had to have a police escort,” Cao shared. “Here, the police questioned us extensively about our living situation, address, travel history and recorded everything. Travelers whose apartments are not adequate for quarantine, have roommates or don’t have any lodging are required to go to a designated quarantine hotel. Those whose housing is suitable for quarantine can be picked up by a family member or taken to their residence by police. Due to being a yellow sticker traveler, we were not allowed to take commercial transportation to decrease the exposure risk of other people.”

(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)

Once at home, the couple’s self-quarantine began.

“When we arrived at our apartment, we were met by a local health official who examined our apartment to make sure was suitable for quarantine,” Cao said. “He then administered a health check as well as measured our temperatures. At this time, we also signed a form declaring that we will abide by quarantine regulations and not leave our apartment for 14 days. He notified us that he will come back daily to administer a temperature check and health check. When everything was set and done, it was around midnight when we were finally able to unpack and relax.”

(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)

“China has an extensive delivery service where anything can be bought and delivered,” Cao said. “Our apartment has a front desk that’s always staffed and will bring us everything we ordered so we adhere to quarantine.”

(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)
(Photo courtesy of Fei Cao)

So, how does Ethan Steinberg’s account of arriving in Washington, D.C. from Asia during this same period compare to Ms. Cao’s experience returning to Shanghai from the U.S.?

Arriving in Washington, D.C.

Steinberg is also an American who lives and works in Shanghai, but his family is here in the U.S. He wanted to return home to be with his family during the coronavirus scare — and his arrival at a U.S. airport was markedly different than Ms. Cao’s.

He booked his travel from Shanghai to Washington, D.C. via Tokyo on separate tickets. He flew ANA first class for the Tokyo to D.C. leg of the trip. When asked if there were any health screening measures to get into the Asian airports, Steinberg said, “of course.”

“Both Shanghai and Tokyo Narita (NRT) had multiple temperature checks before you could even enter the airport, let alone clear customs,” he said.

When he boarded his ANA flight, Steinberg realized he was the only passenger in first. “Looked like 100 passengers, maximum, on the Boeing 777-300ER. The day before, when I flew Shanghai (PVG) to Narita, we had 15 total passengers on a 767 — yet weirdly enough, the eight of us in economy all sat in the first two rows.”

We were curious about any health checks that might have been performed, or if any health officials met the aircraft at the gate. Steinberg said there were none.

“I arrived on Sunday, March 8,” Steinberg said, “and no one met us at the plane.” He added that while he did end up experiencing a health check later in the entry process, he believes it was just because his Global Entry receipt was X’d out.

“A customs agent asked about my travel history and seemed shocked, and sort of taken off guard, when I said I’d been in China just 35 hours ago,” Steinberg explained. “He led me over to another desk, where I was apparently the first passenger that the customs agents had to train on the new system. They redirected me to a small CDC health screening area, where they took my temperature and gave me an info packet to take home.”

Steinberg said the screening probably should have only taken about five minutes, “but the customs agents were going slow while they learned the system.” All in all, it took about 20 minutes to go through the process. During the health screening, he was told that there might be additional follow up and that he should check his temperature twice daily and log it. But, Steinberg says no one has contacted him since arriving back int he U.S.

“It’s scary that the process to leave China is 10 times stricter than the process to get into the U.S.,” Steinberg confided, “and it’s scary going from a city that has this under control to one that absolutely doesn’t.”

Featured image by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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