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News >  Washington

‘Clearly it wasn’t fast enough,’ a Port commissioner says of new, murky Sea-Tac coronavirus mask policy

UPDATED: Sun., May 10, 2020

Passengers are seen at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport during the coronavirus outbreak Sunday. The airport is last among major West Coast airports to implement mandatory mask wearing. (Ken Lambert / Seattle Times)
Passengers are seen at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport during the coronavirus outbreak Sunday. The airport is last among major West Coast airports to implement mandatory mask wearing. (Ken Lambert / Seattle Times)
By Lynda V. Mapes Seattle Times

Customers say they feel unsafe. A commissioner says it’s incredible. But as the coronavirus pandemic continues, the Port of Seattle still has no policy in place requiring people to wear masks at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Already the last among major West Coast airports to implement mandatory mask wearing, a formal policy for Sea-Tac is still more than a week away, and details are yet to be worked out.

Masks already are mandatory at San Francisco International Airport. They will be mandatory at Los Angeles International Airport as of Monday. Denver International Airport implemented a mandatory mask policy a week ago. But at Sea-Tac, masks are still optional and details of a new mandate – announced, in part, late Saturday – are yet to be determined.

“Still many more details to come,” Peter McGraw, spokesman for the Port of Seattle, said Sunday in an email to the Seattle Times. Port officials will meet Tuesday for further discussion of a mask policy. Implementation of a mask policy for the traveling public and visitors to the airport and Port employees is set for May 18.

The start on a mask policy was announced after airport officials met with dozens of tenants Friday afternoon, talked with airport peers around the country and decided mandating masks was the safest policy, McGraw said.

None of the details is worked out yet – how the policy will be enforced, penalties for noncompliance, how an exemption for people with medical conditions would be implemented, or even whether masks will be for sale in vending machines or when.

About 3,800 people pass through the airport daily since this virus struck, compared with a daily average of as many as 55,000 in early May 2019, according to the port. Some travelers say they have been shocked, in using Sea-Tac airport, at how little has been done to address public safety during the pandemic.

“What is wrong with the people running Sea-Tac?” said Chuck Springer, who flew home to Anchorage from Phoenix via Sea-Tac on Friday. “There didn’t appear to be any extra effort at Sea-Tac to protect people.”

He and his wife arrived at the S gates and had to take the train to the main terminal. “It looked like every other day six months ago, everyone is crowding in, there are no social distancing markings, there is no one to help or guide the situation, everyone is packed in close together just like the old days,” he said.

He said he saw very few people wearing masks. “It’s like wow, we are stepping into the twilight zone.”

Even some Port commissioners said Sunday the airport has been too slow to take action on a mask policy.

“Why is this taking so long?” Port Commissioner Fred Felleman said Sunday. “It has been slow, clearly this is overdue. The public has every right to question, when they are leaving San Francisco and everyone is masked. Clearly it wasn’t fast enough. I am just as negligent for not forcing the question. It is just incredible.”

The Port has been focused on the economic impact of losing 95% of its business at Sea-Tac from the travel slowdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Felleman said. “But that shouldn’t take precedence over public health.”

Also to be discussed Tuesday is whether preboarding temperature checks will be required of travelers, but again confusion reigns. What would happen next if a passenger has a high temperature? Would they be denied travel? By whom and how?

Paine Field Airport in Everett already is on top of temperature checks, according to a policy implemented more than a week ago.

Airlines including Seattle-based Alaska Airlines have set policies that make coverings mandatory for passengers when they’re on the plane.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced in the past week that workers at all its screening checkpoints, including those at Sea-Tac, will be required to have masks. At Sea-Tac, seven TSA employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Nationwide, as of Sunday, 546 TSA employees had tested positive and six have died after contracting the virus.

The Port has provided masks for frontline workers such as janitors and airport guides at Sea-Tac, but they haven’t been required to wear them.

In the United States, the discrepancy of policies at airports mirrors the larger confusion faced by the public everywhere during the coronavirus pandemic as to what is expected of them to keep themselves and their neighbors safe. Store by store, jurisdiction by jurisdiction and even day by day, the situation changes.

While some Bay Area counties in California now require mask wearing in public, King County and Seattle recommend face coverings but do not yet require it, though policies are under discussion.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all persons wear a cloth face covering when out in public when social distancing of at least 6 feet may be difficult to maintain, such as at a pharmacy or grocery store. The agency is not recommending surgical masks, or N-95 masks, which are needed by health personnel, but rather any cloth covering.

A face covering is important for slowing the transmission of the novel coronavirus because people may be carrying the virus and not know it, experts say. Some may even have COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and not have symptoms.

For this reason maintaining 6 feet of distance with all people when out of the home is important to slow the spread of the virus, which researchers now say does not move on its own – it is moved by people.

Cloth coverings can be made from simple household items such as towels or bandannas.

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