I land at Chicago O’Hare Airport at 7:10 p.m on March 15th. The flight attendants hand out a paper to each passenger as the plane taxis to our gate. We are to circle each place we’ve traveled in the last 14 days and any symptoms we may feel. I watch the boy I just sat next to for a 10-hour flight circle around Italy.
I get my winter jacket out of the overhead bin and carry my passport and the paper off the plane, bracing myself for the Chicago cold. Officers wearing face masks and medical gowns are checking each person’s passports and writing letters on the top of our papers. I get an “A.”
We shuffle through more hallways and rooms I have never seen before, even though I’ve traveled through O’Hare dozens of times. The people who also just got off my flight are either moving in a slow, jet-lagged haze, or are speed walking past others in hopes of beating the line through customs. I’m somewhere in the middle, knowing I should try to rush out of here but also so exhausted mentally and physically from travel that I let others pass me by.
We walk until we eventually come to an unmarked line of people, reaching down the hallway and around the corner so I can’t see its end. I take off my jacket, as this walking and exhaustion have caused me to work up a sweat. I take out my phone and text my parents, “Landed. Waiting in a long line now,” at 7:42 p.m.
When I’m not attending college in California I live with my parents about 15 minutes from O’Hare. In fact, we moved out of our childhood home because it was directly under a flight path that resulted in a plane flying overhead exactly every 2 minutes. My mother couldn’t take the noise any longer so she sold that house and we moved across town in 2016.
I see two guards walking past me toward the front of the line, and some people in front of me stop them to ask what the line is for. “This is the line for customs, sir,” one guard replies. The man then asks how long he should expect to be waiting. “Yesterday took some people hours, I’m sure you saw on the news,” the guard answers. I pull my phone out again and open my favorite, honest news source: Twitter. I type “O’Hare” into the search bar and see hundreds of tweets over the last few days from fellow travelers who already endured what I am about to. One woman tweeted, “4-5 hours of customs and ‘advanced screening’ after my 9 hour flight. On my way home to begin my 14 day precautionary self-quarantine,” while another tweeted a photo of the overcrowded lines with the caption, “A field ripe for viral transmission… #ohareairport.”
I immediately felt my heart begin to race, with anxiety and fear that I would not be going home for hours; even though it was only 8:30 p.m Chicago time, it felt like 3:30 a.m. for me. I stare at the reflection of fluorescent lighting against the artwork of Chicago covering the walls.
By 11:00 p.m. I am at the front of the customs line. A woman takes my paperwork and passport under the plastic screen separating us and questions where I’ve traveled. I ask her if she’s been working the last few nights here, and if this is how slow it’s been. She tells me it was even worse the night before and then asks if I have any food in my backpack. I tell her I think I might have an apple, and she writes something down on my paper before handing it back. She tells me to go to the next line on the left, and I can’t help but wonder how that is different from the line on the right. She has written in red pen “CDC” and “apple,” next to the “A” that was already there.
I sit in this line long enough to be offered cheez-its and a water bottle from some workers. I gladly accept and they jokingly say, “leave us a good review on Yelp!” The past few days of backlash against O’Hare on Twitter and other social media has caused an uproar in Chicago, with Governor Pritzker and Mayor Lightfoot demanding help from the Trump administration. Apparently the best they could do to help is offer chips and water.
By the time I reach the CDC tent I am so overtired that I worry my body will be feverish just from hours of travel and waiting in line with no rest. A doctor checks my paperwork, asks if I was a student in the Czech Republic, and then informs me she will be taking my temperature with a thermometer that doesn’t even touch my forehead. She just points it at me and announces “98.6.” I am relieved to have passed the screening, she gives me hand sanitizer and a pamphlet about self quarantining and I am then shuffled to baggage claim. It’s been almost 5 hours since my flight landed so I wonder if my bags will still be on the baggage carousel or not. I find my two 50 pound roller bags in a pile of suitcases labeled with my flight number and am silently grateful that they didn’t get lost in this madness.
I text my mom, “I think I’m almost through? Not sure if there will be more lines or not.” She calls me back because she’s already driving to get me. I tell her I’m in another line, the agriculture inspection line, probably for an apple in my backpack. My mom starts yelling. “Why in the world would you have an apple? Just throw it!” I tell her it’s already written on my paperwork and I’m worried if there ends up not being an apple in my backpack I’ll look even more suspicious. I’ve never traveled alone internationally, I didn’t know you couldn’t bring in produce from other countries. It is 12:30 a.m. on March 16. This damn apple in my backpack is going to be the death of me.
We drive home in silence. I am shocked by the fact that my time in Prague is over so soon, but more shocked at the way America seems to be behind. I think back to the boy on my flight circling Italy. Why did I sit next to him for 10 hours only to then find out he had been in Italy?
I sleep until 2 p.m. on March 16th. I come downstairs to see my 17-year-old brother has three friends over. Before I get the chance to ask my mother why she’s allowed friends in our house when I am under self-quarantine she tells me to disinfect my suitcases and wash all my clothes, even the ones I didn’t get the chance to wear in Prague. I ask why she cares about my clothing and not the 3 boys breathing all over our kitchen, but I get her classic silence while she stares at her work computer screen. I put in a load of laundry and call my dad who is at work.
“Why are Matthew’s friends over? There’s a very real chance that I got coronavirus from the airport, or that one of them has it and is spreading it to us.” My brother warns me not to ruin his 2 week “corona-cation” from school. I go to bed upset and anxious, both at the stupidity of my family and the growing disappointment in my semester in Prague being over.
On March 30th my self-quarantine period is over. I never felt symptoms, but 8 of my friends from Prague have tested positive. My family has since recognized the importance of isolation and not allowed anyone else into the house. This new rule causes my brother to have multiple emotional breakdowns in front of my parents, sister, and I, begging to go for a walk with friends or sit around the campfire with neighbors. After multiple “no’s” to all his requests, he takes his selfish anger out on a punching bag in the basement that was his Christmas present in 2012.
I go to Trader Joe’s for my mother. I stand on dots that are placed six feet apart down the sidewalk, waiting 45 minutes in 35 degree weather just to enter the store. I notice blue ribbons on the trees around the parking lot that the town put up in support of front line workers. Everyone in line has a face mask on and no one is engaged in small talk, even though I recognize a few eyes as belonging to people I would normally say hello to. All shoppers must enter from the right, and work their way through each aisle only walking in a one way direction. I learn quickly not to forget anything in an aisle with fear of having to circle all the way back around the store. There is no toilet paper or flour, both of which are written on my mother’s list.
When I get home my dad helps me carry the groceries inside. He is so bored without work that he offers to help around the house, something my mom is greatly appreciating. He stopped working about a week ago, as not many people are hiring contractors to remodel their kitchens or bathrooms these days. He’s been using his newfound time to build flower boxes and a new backyard deck, something my mom has been requesting since they moved into this house in 2016.
My sister is watching Trump give his daily coronavirus briefing. I can’t remember what the news used to talk about before coronavirus. The constant cycle of depressing information regarding the pandemic has numbed me to its severity.
It’s April 17th and the weather is the nicest it’s been all year. Lori Lightfoot has extended the shelter in place order until April 30th. My mother has had enough of my father putzing around the house and my brother nagging to see friends that she asks me to go for a drive. We head East on Caldwell and Hollywood Boulevard to Lake Shore Drive. The lake water is so blue, almost turquoise, probably basking in the lack of exhaust fumes coming from the highway everyday. We turn right and head south on Michigan Avenue towards Millenium Park. The closure of lakefront paths has caused the people to flock to the city streets. Everywhere I look there are people. A pregnant woman stretches on the street corner waiting for the light to change. Couples are jogging by the boarded up storefronts, businessmen walk by in suits, and my mother and I question why Chicago under shelter-in-place looks like any other normal day. She rambles on about how careless people are while I quietly consider if we are also away from home, are we any better than them?