Many COVID-19 Safety Measures Flying Away at DIA

The baggage claim area at Denver International Airport on the evening of October 19.
The baggage claim area at Denver International Airport on the evening of October 19. Photo by Michael Roberts
Even as COVID-19 counts for cases and hospitalizations in metro Denver are climbing to levels not seen since the early days of the pandemic, many businesses in the area are slacking on mask usage rules and other safety measures. And Denver International Airport appears to be on the same flight path.

A visit to the airport on the evening of October 19 revealed a near-complete lack of social distancing in various parts of the terminal, with the baggage claim a particular problem spot. In addition, limits on the number of people allowed to be in an elevator at any one time were widely ignored and utterly unsupervised.

Our last look at how DIA was handling the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus came in mid-May, ten days after the airport made facial coverings mandatory. Despite the edict, we saw multiple people being allowed through security without masks, and even some Transportation Security Administration employees hadn't bothered to cover up. But at least social distancing was easy, since the facility was mostly empty. Clearly, most people weren't comfortable getting on a plane at that point.

That remains the case in many places. But glowing reports about the safety of ventilation on commercial aircraft have convinced more people to travel, including my wife and one of my daughters, who flew to Washington, D.C., to visit the latter's twin sister over the weekend.

click to enlarge A new return-to-terminal route at DIA opened earlier today, October 21. - COURTESY OF DENVER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
A new return-to-terminal route at DIA opened earlier today, October 21.
Arriving In D.C. on an uncrowded Southwest flight, they were wowed by how seriously Washingtonians were taking the novel coronavirus. Dulles International Airport was wide open and easy to navigate without invading anyone's six-foot bubble, and mask-wearing in the city was close to universal inside and out. Businesses and institutions alike were limiting capacity and making sure that people made safe choices. For example, a staffer at the National Museum of African American History and Culture was assigned to monitor the elevators to prevent too many people from being jammed into such a confined space.

DIA was another story.

Driving to the airport for their flight's scheduled 7 p.m. arrival was a snap, until I entered the immediate vicinity of the terminal, where road construction on and around Peña Boulevard had created a pinch point despite the reduced traffic volume. (At 4 a.m. today, October 21, the return-to-terminal route was scheduled to be permanently changed.)

Still, the parking garage was far from packed, causing me to assume that I'd find a similar situation in the terminal. But no: Thanks to continuing renovations inside, there's a lot less room to maneuver, especially when a flood of folks are emerging from DIA's trains at the same time. As I approached the pick-up area, dozens of travelers headed straight toward me, many of them shoulder to shoulder, just like the good old days, before a certain infectious disease was circulating.

click to enlarge Parking definitely wasn't a problem on the evening of October 19. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
Parking definitely wasn't a problem on the evening of October 19.
Photo by Michael Roberts
The scenario was exacerbated at the baggage claim, where returning passengers mobbed the area around the conveyor belt, paying little attention to maintaining physical distance — and no DIA employees were on hand to try spreading them out. Yes, most people were masked, but they were also in close proximity to each other for an extended period of time.

We chose a spot at the far end of the carousel and waited for the bags to come to us rather than compete with the crowd, then headed to the elevator banks just as the doors to one unit opened to reveal what appeared to be a clown car's worth of people emerging — somewhere in the eight-to-ten range, I'd guess.

When the doors closed again, they revealed signage limiting ridership to four — but again, no DIA employee was around to ensure that was happening. As a result, visitors were left to deal with the situation themselves, as we found out moments later. The four of us entered an elevator, and before the doors could shut, a family of five tried to rush inside. When I said the limit was supposed to be four, the man leading the pack stopped outside the car, but just barely, a baffled expression on his face.

His confusion was understandable. After all, a lot of what was happening in the airport implied that things were getting back to normal, COVID-19 notwithstanding. But the viral stats in Denver suggest otherwise.
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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