Two passengers who flew in and out of Denver International Airport in recent days — my daughter Ellie Roberts and future son-in-law Nick Nist — were horrified by what they saw as lax COVID-19 protocols at the facility.
"Bottom line is, DIA is doing an incredibly bad job at enforcing or encouraging distancing," notes Ellie, and the accompanying photos suggest problems with mask use, too. The two had flown to Denver back in November, and had spotted some issues with safety practices then. This time around, they say, things were considerably worse.
After hearing their story, and having covered Colorado's COVID-19 responses for nearly a year, I reached out to Denver International Airport to report what they'd seen.
"We’re sorry to hear about the passengers' negative experience," responds Denver International Airport spokesperson Alex Renteria, who noted that "the airport is like a mini city — with separate sections and different 'overseers' of each section."
Ellie and Nick had flown to Denver late last week from the Washington, D.C., area, where they were impressed with how employees at Dulles International Airport operated. Staffers charged with making sure that individuals maintained a six-foot distance from each other, and that they were wearing masks properly, were deployed across all parts of the facility, and their supervision helped reduce the tension of taking to the air during a pandemic.
The contrast between Dulles and DIA could not have been more stark, they say, particularly on the afternoon of February 23, when they flew out of Denver to return to D.C. While all of the passengers they saw at security had masks, personnel paid no attention as to whether the facial coverings were actually worn over the nose and mouth — and according to these two, a worrisome percentage were not.
After the ID check, they were herded into the area where carry-on items and electronic equipment are scanned. They estimate that the gap between most passengers was no more than a foot — and again, they didn't see any agents trying to increase the distance. Staffers just ignored what was happening and went about their business as if the novel coronavirus didn't exist.
The train ride to Concourse C, where they were to catch their flight, wasn't a problem, Ellie and Nick say; people weren't packed in so tightly that distancing was impossible. But in the concourse itself, all the restaurants were open and customers in line to order were much closer to each other than they should have been under social distancing guidelines — and many of them had already lowered their masks despite not yet having received food or drink.
Waiting areas near the gates were troublesome, too, they say — especially at the end of the concourse, where several are in close proximity. Social distancing was lacking, and the number of people who either lowered or ditched their masks for one reason or another (talking on the phone, holding a beverage without actually sipping it, etc.) made the situation worse.
The destinations of returning tourists — and how those areas are dealing with the pandemic — seemed to make a difference in passengers' behavior, they suggest. One of the worst sections was near the gate for a flight to Tampa, Florida, a state much looser in safety restrictions, and they didn't see any passengers trying to enforce Colorado rules.
Ellie and Nick report leaving Denver feeling fearful and disgusted.
After hearing their account, Renteria issued an apology, then addressed their observations.
The federal Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, "has their own guidelines and rules, and we will be sure to get the passengers' feedback to them," she says. "However, we know that there are signs throughout TSA lines that indicate passengers should stand six feet apart, as well as markers on the floor to indicate appropriate places to stand. Masks are required to be worn at all times in the airport, and TSA employees, like all DEN employees, will direct people to wear a mask if they are not wearing one. We also have overhead announcements running to remind folks to wear masks and social-distance. Our hope is that passengers follow our social distancing guidelines and respect their fellow travelers by wearing their masks properly. We have asked that all DEN employees remind passengers to follow guidelines, but we know some instances of incorrect mask-wearing or not social distancing can be missed."
Renteria acknowledges that "during busy times, TSA lines can be more crowded. We’ve implemented VeriFLY as a way to guarantee passengers are only around a limited number of people in these locations. VeriFLY is a free, app-based reservation system that allows passengers to access a dedicated TSA screening lane and a reserved, limited-capacity train car to the concourse."
She notes there are also "signage and floor decals throughout the airport, including at concessions, reminding passengers to social-distance and wear masks. If passengers want to skip the lines at restaurants, we recommend checking out Eats Delivered. Eats Delivered allows you to enjoy some of DEN's great concessions with less contact and no lines. Passengers can download the AtYourGate app, select the concession of their choice, order and pay. Their food will be delivered in thirty minutes or less by an AtYourGate employee, who will follow COVID-19 health precautions. For those eating at their gates (or anywhere inside DEN), we have installed signage asking them to spread out and wear a mask when not actively eating or drinking."
While the gate areas are overseen by the individual airlines, Renteria notes that "masks are required to be worn at DEN, and people should be social-distancing. President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order, 'Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel,' on January 21, 2021, requiring face masks to be worn in airports, on commercial aircraft and in various modes of surface transportation. While face masks have been required at DEN since May 2020, federal law now requires anyone over the age of two to wear a mask at all times in and on airport property. Refusing to wear a mask in or on the airport is a violation of federal law, and individuals may be subject to penalties under federal law."
The account of the two travelers "is disappointing to hear," Renteria concedes, "and we will make sure to reinforce messaging to our team members and partners about our responsibility to inform passengers about our policies. We would also love your help in reminding passengers to do their part in keeping our community healthy!"
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