DIA: Mask Rule Confusion Could Worsen COVID Safety Sh*t Show

Customers lined up to board a Southwest flight at Denver International Airport on May 7.
Customers lined up to board a Southwest flight at Denver International Airport on May 7. Photo by Michael Roberts
In "DIA Is a COVID-19 Safety Joke," I recapped my recent experience at Denver International Airport, where mask use was spotty, social distancing was lousy in part because of ongoing construction that shrank the available space, and a train ride from a distant gate that was so crowded, passengers were packed more tightly than Dippin' Dots.

I reached out to DIA for a response to my observations, and the airport's reply deflected much of the blame for the problems onto travelers rather than taking responsibility for the often sorry situation — which is likely to get worse, owing to widespread confusion over the latest guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in regard to facial coverings and social distancing.

The CDC's announcement was first shared in a tweet published at 12:35 p.m. MDT on May 13. It reads, in part: "If you are fully vaccinated against #COVID19, you can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, incl. local business and workplace guidance."

The fine print includes settings such as airports. Following the announcement, CDC director Rochelle Walensky told NPR, "Right now, we still have the requirement to wear masks when you travel on buses, trains and other forms of public transportation, as well as airports and stations."

But given all the hoopla over the opportunity for those who are fully vaccinated to ditch masks, the ongoing mandate at airports was easy to miss. That could translate to plenty of conscientious, fully vaccinated people showing up at DIA with bare faces, as well as unvaccinated folks who hated the old mask rule now breaking the new one with a time-tested technique: lying.

Against this backdrop, here's how DIA spokesperson Alex Renteria responded to our query:

"DEN remains under the federal mask mandate, which has been extended until September 13," Renteria stresses. "Our team members are still monitoring passengers around the airport and reminding them to wear their masks appropriately. It is important to note that we do rely on the personal responsibility of passengers who are traveling through DEN now more than ever, as our passenger traffic has increased to pre-pandemic levels."

Beginning last October, DIA began offering a program called VeriFLY, which the initial announcement characterized as "a new pilot program that allows health-conscious travelers to move safely through security and to their gate with more reliability and reduced contact." To take advantage of VeriFLY's features, participants were advised to do the following:
• Download the VeriFLY app and create an account
• Make your reservation in advance of your flight for TSA screening (you can make your reservation up to two-weeks prior to your flight and you will have a 15-minute window to arrive at the checkpoint)
• Approximately 24 hours before your flight, you will be asked to complete a COVID-19 health assessment to help ensure that you are fit to fly
• On the day of your flight, check-in with your airline and then head to the VeriFLY lane at the south screening checkpoint at your reserved time. A touchless, electronic gate will scan your access code and check your temperature before you can access the dedicated TSA lane
• You will then proceed through TSA screening (standard and PreCheck lanes available)
• Once the screening process is complete, go to the train platform and board the dedicated train car, with a limited number of VeriFLY passengers, which will take you to your concourse.
• Travelers who do not successfully complete the health screening questionnaire or have a temperature above 100.4 will not be admitted into the VeriFLY lane. Additionally, face masks or coverings that cover the nose and mouth are required for all travelers and employees at DEN, including those using VeriFLY.
These safety measures were impressive — but they're gone now. The VeriFLY program ended on April 30, in part because of issues related to the dedicated train car.

"We anticipate passenger traffic will continue to rebound," Renteria notes. "Therefore we need all train cars to move passengers back and forth. Throughout the pandemic DEN has been running as many train cars as possible (even when passenger traffic was very low). As we return to pre-pandemic levels, freeing up the VeriFLY train car allows people to spread out better in all cars."

Here are Renteria's current train tips:
• "Trains run every 2-3 mins during peak times, so if a train seems too crowded, wait for the next one."
• "Move to the center of the platform, instead of waiting for a car at the end, generally center cars are less crowded."
• "Consider walking across the A-Bridge on Level 6. If you’re flying out of or into an A Gate, this eliminates the need to get on the train completely. But if you’re flying into/out of a B or C gate, you’ll still shorten your travel time."
• "Busy train times generally come in short waves. If you notice many people on the platform, consider waiting at the top of the platform for a few minutes until any backup clears."
• "During busy 'banks,' several flights are landing at once, which means there are several groups of people trying to get to the terminal. Once your flight lands, take 5-10 additional minutes on the concourse (use the restroom, stretch legs, maybe get a coffee) before heading for the train. Likely, you’ll experience a less crowded train if you give it a few minutes."
As for those construction issues, be prepared to deal with them for years to come.

"The Gate Expansion project broke ground in 2018," Renteria notes. "Construction on all expansion work is expected to be substantially completed by the end of 2021 and gates will be airline operational in 2022. Phase 2, Concourse Renewal, will be complete in 2024."

And while "the Great Hall Project Phase 1 will complete at the end of this year," he adds, the project's second phase "will complete in Q2 2024."

Click to see a detailed timeline of the Great Hall Project and more information about gate expansion. The pages will give you a better idea about what flying out of DIA will be like after the construction is over — and prepare you for some of the challenges you'll face while it's still ongoing.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts