JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Traffic along Interstate 95 was slowed for miles at the Florida-Georgia border Sunday afternoon after a checkpoint was put in place to screen for travelers coming from COVID-19 hot spots on the East Coast.
Traffic was slowed from the Highway 17 exit in Florida all the way to St. Mary’s Road in Georgia, just past the St. Mary’s River, around 3 p.m.
The traffic on I-95 had cleared up by Sunday evening after the checkpoint was shut down for about four hours. A source at the checkpoint said the operation was shut down due to traffic issues.
The checkpoint reopened around 5:15 p.m. after the Florida Department of Transportation set up a new traffic cone pattern to improve the flow of vehicles coming through. After the changes, traffic appeared to flow much smoother.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said the purpose of the new checkpoint on I-95 south is to check for people coming from the New York City area — where there were more than 33,700 confirmed cases of COVID-19, as of Sunday — and help slow the spread of the deadly virus in Florida.
“Initially I was concerned about doing this because I don’t want there to be a backup," DeSantis said during a news conference Saturday. "But they’re doing it in a great way where the trucks are going through. We’re not worried about that. We’re just worried about the people fleeing some of those areas.”
According to aerial images captured by Sky 4 and traffic maps from the area, the checkpoint wasn’t flowing as smoothly as DeSantis had hoped Sunday afternoon.
A video shared on Facebook Sunday afternoon shows drivers avoiding barriers on the Highway 17 exit to avoid the long lines on Interstate 95. The post was shared over 1,800 times.
On Sunday evening, FDOT announced that the ramp to U.S. 17 will be closed indefinitely during COVID-19 response activities. Drivers seeking to access U.S. 17 will be detoured to S.R. 200 in Yulee.
Drivers going through the I-95 checkpoint Sunday were being asked by Florida Department of Health personnel which states they had traveled from while semi-truck drivers were being allowed to continue on. Drivers from hot spot states were waved to the side and asked to give their travel and contact information. According to the state, the Florida Highway Patrol is facilitating the checkpoint 24/7 with more than a dozen troopers in 12-hour shifts.
A similar checkpoint in Northwest Florida, on Interstate 10, targets travelers from Louisiana, another area considered a hot spot.
The highway checkpoints are an extension of screenings already underway at big Florida airports, like Jacksonville International Airport.
DeSantis issued an executive order directing the Department of Health to require travelers from New York, Louisiana, Connecticut and New Jersey to self-isolate for 14 days after traveling to Florida.
DeSantis said Saturday that a traveler who had previously tested positive for COVID-19 was on a flight from a New York City airport to Jacksonville International Airport on Friday when he was intercepted at an airport checkpoint and taken to a local hospital. DeSantis said the man thought his symptoms had lessened enough to travel, but his symptoms returned. News Service of Florida reports that the people seated near him on the plane are now being treated by the CDC.