COVID-19: No Mask, No Problem at DIA?

Social distancing was spotty at the main DIA security station. Note the mask-free TSA employee at the lower right.
Photo by Michael Roberts
Social distancing was spotty at the main DIA security station. Note the mask-free TSA employee at the lower right.
On May 6, the day that facial coverings became mandatory at Denver International Airport, we suggested that DIA might be the hardest place in the city to enforce Denver's new mask rule.

Ten days later, on May 16, we visited the airport to see if that was true, and based on the better part of an hour spent in the main terminal (concourses are off limits to those without a ticket), our prediction proved accurate. Despite the mandate, we saw multiple people being allowed through security without masks; numerous Transportation Security Administration employees, including the woman in the lower right-hand corner of the photo above, were also mask-free.

Likewise, social distancing and other safety procedures in the security area were spotty, even though the number of passengers on hand was so low that at times the place seemed more like a ghost airport than one being used by flesh-and-blood humans.

In early May, when we talked with DIA spokesperson Alex Renteria about the new mask rule, he'd noted that major airlines are now requiring passengers to wear masks on flights, so everyone should presumably have one with them — though he acknowledged that "it is certainly possible" someone might show up sans facial covering.

click to enlarge The security station on the bridge to DIA's first concourse. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
The security station on the bridge to DIA's first concourse.
Photo by Michael Roberts
While the airport didn't have plans to offer masks to those without them "at this time," he'd said, "we are looking into options, which include selling masks at the airport." The latter is now happening in places such asMcCarran International Airport, which recently installed vending machines selling personal protective equipment.

We saw no such gadget in DIA's terminal, but as Renteria had foreseen, about 90 percent of the people at the airport were masked. The 10 percent or so who weren't tended to fall into the same demographic category as those who reject facial coverings at Denver-area Home Depots: adult men, most of them white. We saw only a couple of female passengers without facial coverings. Of the TSA agents we spotted without face coverings, several seemed to be arriving for their shift and didn't appear to feel the need to put on a mask yet, even though they were moving in close proximity to patrons and colleagues. A couple of others were simply going about their business as usual.

Renteria had confirmed that "like many of the stay-at-home orders and mask orders, we are taking an education rather than enforcement approach. We will encourage those not wearing one to put one on."

But if airport officials were educating anyone about their lack of a mask, we saw no evidence of it. The TSA agents who confirmed IDs didn't stop anyone without a facial covering from moving forward.

As for social distancing, we didn't see any marks on the floor in the waiting areas by the main security checkpoint (only one open during our visit) or the bridge to the A concourse. Nor were there marks by the conveyor belts where carry-ons and the passengers themselves are scanned. As a result, we spotted quite a few groups of people standing in close proximity to each other, and while some of them were undoubtedly family members who've been quarantining together, that clearly wasn't the case in many other circumstances.

Hands-on searches of select individuals were still going on, too, and we didn't witness TSA employees changing out gloves after patting down one flyer and moving on to the next. Granted, such a switch-out would be time-consuming, but also much more hygienic.

Fortunately, those who wanted to socially-distance were able to do so, given how relatively empty DIA was on May 16. Doing so will be much more difficult when and if more people feel comfortable traveling again.