Friday, 10 July 2020

Travelling via Chicago

As if there weren’t already enough complications and concerns for those who have to travel, a “self-quarantine” travel order issued a week ago by the Commissioner of Health of the City of Chicago has cast a cloud of uncertainty over what might happen to people who try to change planes, trains, or buses in Chicago.

The health order requires anyone who enters the Chicago city limits from any of a blacklist of states designated by the Chicago Department of Health to “self-quarantine” for 14 days or until they leave the city limits, whichever comes first.

What does this mean for people travelling between other places via Chicago?

On its face, the order clearly applies to people changing planes, trains, or buses, in Chicago, requiring them to “self-quarantine” while they are within the city limits, if they are coming from one of the blacklisted states.

That’s a lot of people. Both O’Hare Airport (one of the busiest hubs for both American and United Airlines) and Midway Airport (one of the busiest hubs for Southwest Airlines) are within the Chicago city limits, as is Amtrak’s hub at Chicago Union Station.

Normally, tens of millions of passengers change planes at O’Hare alone every year. Passenger air travel is down, of course, but with airlines having cut back on which routes they are still operating, air travellers may have fewer, or no, alternative to connecting through Chicago. A minor airport that formerly had service via both Chicago and Dallas/Ft. Worth, for example, may now have service only via Chicago.

There was already little or no alternative to Union Station connections in Chicago for many Amtrak passengers. A 1945 advertisement asked why A Hog Can Cross the Country Without Changing Trains — But YOU Can’t!. Pullman sleeping cars, which were owned by the Pullman company not the individual railroads, could have been shunted through or around Chicago, just as freight cars were and are on the Belt Railway and just as sleeping cars of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (“International Sleeping Car Company”) were switched between operating national and private railroads across Europe. Amtrak has had authority since its creation in 1971 to operate through trains over multiple railways’ tracks. But while the 1945 ad and its tagline became famous, it remains true to this day. There still isn’t, and never has been, through passenger rail service across the U.S. from coast to coast without changing trains — most often in Chicago.

The order also applies to people passing through Chicago en route to destinations outside the Chicago city limits, such as someone who flies from Texas or Florida or California to O’Hare and then drives to Des Plaines, five miles from the airport but in a separate city. Less than a third of the Chicagoland population lives within the Chicago city limits, and O’Hare serves an even larger catchment area than the metropolitan statistical area.

The order mandates that “The Commissioner [of Health of the City of Chicago] shall issue protocols governing application of this Order…. The protocols may include other exceptions to self-quarantine that in the sole judgment of the Commissioner are necessary or appropriate to cover situations when self-quarantine is not possible, practicable or advisable.” But no such protocols have been made public.

The Chicago Department of Public Health (which issued the quarantine order for travellers, and which has the authority to promulgate exception protocols) and the office of Mayor Lightfoot have acknowledged my inquiries, but neither has yet provided any response.

When the Chicago quarantine order was first posted online, it was accompanied by an FAQ (dated July 2nd but with a July 4th date in the filename) which purported to correspond to the “protocols” for implementaton of the order. But the protocols themselves were not released, and the FAQ made no mention of an exception for travellers in transit.

On Monday, July 6th, I spoke with Matthew McCrath, Deputy Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation, the division of the city government that operates both O’Hare and Midway Airports. McGrath told me that, “The order does not apply to passengers in transit at the airport.” When I asked him the basis for that interpretation by the Department of Aviation, he backpedaled: “You aren’t going to quote me on that.” When I told him that of course I would quote him, he hung up on me with a curt, “We’re done.”

As a former press secretary for former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, McGrath ought to know better than to try to put a response to a journalist’s question off the record after the fact. Apparently Chicago city officials, like Chicago Police officers, still expect their orders to be taken for granted and obeyed, and their claims to be reported as facts, “Because I say so.” If you ask, “Why?” or ask to see the supporting sources for their statements, you get treated like a smart-aleck trouble-maker rather than a journalist.

But something must have happened behind the scenes after McGrath hung up on me. On Thursday, July 9th, McGrath sent me a revised version of the FAQ, still identified as “issued July 2, 2020” but now with a July 9 date in the filename. This version contains the following additional Q & A:

Q: What if I’m flying into a Chicago airport but not staying in the city?

A: The Order does not apply to individuals changing planes at a Chicago airport or flying into a Chicago airport and then traveling directly to a suburban municipality or otherwise out of the city limits.

That suggests that maybe a new or revised protocol was issued in response to my queries. If that’s the case, it would also mean that the original order (without this exception) was remarkably ill-considered, or issued for political rather than health reasons. That would be par for the course: many other recent restrictions on travel issued in the name of “pandemic” have no rational relationship to public health. Restrictions on travel between two cities, states, or countries with equal rates of infection with the same disease, for example, wouldn’t have any more effect on the risk of disease transmission than restrictions on travel within such a region (which haven’t been imposed even when otherwise comparable cross-border travel has been restricted).

If I’ve gotten the FAQ changed to take into consideration the impact of the original order on air travellers in transit, I’ll take that as half a victory. But the protocol the FAQ purports to describe, and its properly-dated revision history, still needs to be made public. And even the revised FAQ still leaves train travellers at Chicago Union Station (and passengers changing buses in Chicago) subject to the quarantine order. That makes no sense, especially given the spaciousness of Union Station compared to many airport waiting areas.

I still don’t know what the basis is for this revised (but backdated) FAQ. It’s impossible to say for sure what’s really going on, or what city officials were thinking, because the protocols purportedly described by the FAQ have not yet been made public.

Are there (1) no protocols and no official exceptions? Is there (2) an informal and therefore non-binding exception for (some) passengers in transit, if they are planning to move on and aren’t planning to remain within the city limits? Or is there (3) a secret protocol creating secret rules, to be enforced by threat of criminal and civil penalties?

How do you “self-quarantine” at O’Hare or Midway Airport, Union Station, or while making your way out of the city to a destination in the suburbs? The city order was issued a week ago, and I’ve been trying all week — unsuccessfully — to get answers.

Based on what I have and haven’t been told in response to a week of persistent questioning, I’ll take Door Number 2: There’s an unoffical exception to the “self-quarantine” requirement for travellers in transit. Because it’s an unofficial exception, but the underlying order carries civil and criminal penalties, the self-quarantine requirement can be enforced or not enforced at the “discretion” of — you guessed it — the Chicago Police Department.

I shouldn’t have to say, especially at this moment, why it’s such a spectacularly bad idea to give more discretionary power to the Chicago Police.

Both the Chicago Police and the security guards at O’Hare have track records of bigotry and brutality. To the Chicago Police Department, enforcement discretion has long been code for racial and political profiling. (The same biased exercise of enforcement discretion characterized and apparently still characterizes the University of Chicago Police Department that wielded the power of badge, gun, and club over the neighborhood where I lived, once upon a time, in Chicago. But that’s another story.)

I was once escorted out of O’Hare by the police, under threat of arrest, for arguing with the LaRouchies who had a table in the airport. I had done nothing illegal, but the LaRouchies couldn’t take being heckled, and called the police. The LaRouchies were wearing suits and ties and espoused anti-communism. I was casually dressed and had long hair. Of course the police saw the “hippie” as the problem. I’m white, and was “merely” expelled from the airport. I would have fared much worse, of course, if I had been Black, regardless of my hair length or attire.

By issuing this quarantine order, without an explicit (and explicitly bounded) exception for travellers in transit, the City of Chicago has created a new tool for Chicago Police to use against travellers passing through the city. If the police at the airport don’t like your looks, they could decide that “quarantine” means that you have to wait for your onward flight in a solitary cell (every large airport has a few holding cells hidden away somewhere on site) rather than in a concourse or lounge. That’s a good reason not to travel via Chicago.

Is the intent of Chicago officials to discourage potentially contagious travellers from travelling via Chicago, and to get them to chose alternate routes via competing hub airports in other cities? Do they want to induce transit passengers to change planes in any other hub, rather than in Chicago? Do they want travellers returning home from Florida to Flossmoor to fly into Milwaukee instead of one of the Chicago airports? Given the value of transit and regional traffic to the city’s economy, it’s hard for me to imagine those as goals of Chicago city officials. But it’s equally hard for me to image anyone in Chicago issuing a rule affecting travellers without thinking about the implications of the city’s role as a transportation hub.

If the existing order is enforced, what will it mean?

I asked United Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Amtrak whether they had received any guidance from the city about the meaning of “self-quarantine” for transit passengers at O’Hare, Midway, or Union Station; whether they as carriers had issued any guidance to travellers; and whether they were aware of any designated procedures, locations, or facilities for self-quarantine by transit passengers. Neither they nor city agencies gave me any meaningful answers.

American Airlines, which has the largest hub operation at O’Hare, sent me a copy of a statement about the airline’s policies for cancellations, refunds, and changes to flights and tickets, and a vague generic notice about state (not city) quarantine rules for destinations (not transfer points):

We are aware that some states are placing new quarantine requirements for customers arriving from other locations. For those traveling domestically, we strongly encourage all of our customers to check with state and local governments in the places they are traveling to so they fully understand and are able to comply with any requirements upon their arrival.

When I followed up repeating my questions about American’s policies, procedures, and facilities (if any), and about passengers in transit at O’Hare, American spokesperson Gianna Urgo (“Global Engagement, ORD Corporate Communication”), replied, “Thanks for your follow up but the statement is all we have to offer on the subject at this time.”

United Airlines, which has both a hub at O’hare and its headquarters in the Willis Tower (Sears Tower) in downtown Chicago, did not respond to multiple e-mail and voicemail messages over the course of a week. (Perhaps they didn’t like my previous in-depth report on their operations and policing at O’Hare.)

Brian Parrish, spokesperson for Southwest Airlines, which has a significant hub at Midway, told me that:

Southwest’s interpretation of the order is that is does not apply to passengers simply making connecting flights at MDW. The order is designed to apply to individuals that are planning to leave the airport and stay in Chicago…. The order does not state that transiting customers need to quarantine within the airport which is the basis for our interpretation. None of the current orders that Southwest is monitoring requires quarantining within the airport by transiting customers….

Southwest is unaware of any procedures or quarantine facilities at MDW for transiting passengers.

This is a curious interpretation unsupported by anything in the text of the official order.

Regardless of whether an exception has been promulgated (or a de facto exception is being applied in at least some cases) for transit passengers, the self-quarantine order certainly does apply to passengers arriving in Chicago and planning to stay in the city. That includes both visitors and city residents returning home. One would hope that airlines and other carriers would be giving out notices about the quarantine order to travellers purchasing tickets or boarding planes, trains, or buses bound for Chicago. If city officials were serious about the order, one would expect them to want carriers to provide such notices before travellers arrive in the city, so they can plan their “self-quarantine” or cancel or revise their travel plans. None of that seems to be happening. People travelling to or via Chicago are on their own to figure out the rules and whether there are (unofficial and nonbinding) exceptions.

Amtrak was somewhat more forthcoming, but unable to explain the city’s thinking or provide any information about city rules. Marc Magliari, Public Relations Manager for Amtrak at Chicago Union Station, told me that he was “trying to get guidance from the city”, but that, “At the time of this writing, we’ve not been contacted by the city of Chicago on this issue. Of course, if they have signage or other messaging for us to display, we would certainly do so.”

Magliari noted that while Amtrak still has “several hundred” transit passengers per day passing through Union Station between connecting trains, that’s so much fewer than during normal times that there is “plenty of room for social distancing” in the waiting areas, especially with the recently-restored Great Hall having been re-opened. Amtrak seating, even in coach, is two-by-two, not three-by-three as on typical airliners, and Amtrak is limiting ticket sales on all its trains. So even as a solo traveller you can expect to have a window-and-aisle pair of seats to yourself — an important selling point for Amtrak over airlines during the pandemic: “Individuals traveling alone may use the seat next to them for personal belongings, while friends and family members will easily find seats together.”

I’ve filed a formal request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act for any “protocols” to the Chicago self-quarantine order for travellers. I’ll update this article or post a follow-up if I get any response.

What’s really happening on the ground at O’Hare, Midway, and Union Station? Please share your experiences in the comments. Bonus points to anyone who can provide a copy of any Chicago city “protocols” (not just the FAQ purporting to describe them) for the “self-quarantine” order for travellers in transit.

[Correction: In the original version of this article, I mixed up two sources with initials “MM”, and mistakenly referred to Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari in two references that should have been to Chicago Department of Aviation spokesperson Matthew McGrath. I apologize to Messrs. Magliari and McGrath for the mixup, which has been corrected in the version above.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 10 July 2020, 18:19 ( 6:19 PM)

The Chicago Department of Public Health has asked for an extension of time for an additional week to respond to my FOIA request:

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 17 July 2020, 14:15 ( 2:15 PM)
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