Essay: U.S. airports were ill-equipped to handle COVID-19

When the world came to a halt, GW wisely recalled its students abroad. As painful as it was to leave Santiago, Chile, bringing students back home was the right decision for student safety. But my experience at a U.S. airport felt anything but safe.

During my trip back from Chile, I noticed that each airport except for my stop at John F. Kennedy Airport took precautions to protect people from COVID-19. When I arrived back in the United States, I had already been in two crowded airports – one in Bogotá, Colombia and the other in Chile. In addition to the measures those airports had taken to mitigate the spread of the pandemic, I managed to snag an empty row on each leg of my journey. But when I arrived at New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport and returned to the United States for the first time in weeks, I stepped off the plane and walked through an airport operating like the world was not in the middle of a health crisis.

In the airport in Santiago, Chile, all workers wore masks. Water fountains were shut off. I asked a restaurant if they could fill my water bottle, but they turned me down because the airport was following social distancing guidelines. Employees wore gloves, too. Announcements came over the PA system asking that travelers maintain one meter of distance between each other and that anyone presenting symptoms immediately identify themselves to airport personnel. JFK took no such measures.

The airport in Bogotá, Colombia had implemented similar precautions. Before I was allowed to proceed to my next flight, I had to wait in line to get my temperature taken by a worker in full personal protective equipment. On both flights, the pilots made an announcement that again asked people with symptoms to identify themselves. Again, the U.S. airport did not take the same precautions.

When I arrived in New York, I was not asked any questions about where I had been or if I had come into contact with someone with COVID-19. I did not have my temperature taken, and airport workers were not wearing protective equipment. There were no announcements over the PA system asking people to identify themselves if they were showing signs of illness. One worker told me her airline offered paid time off only if she became sick, even though people could carry the virus but show no symptoms for days. She told me the airline had offered her paid sick time off starting on April 1, meaning she would need to become sick before taking time off from work.

Once through security, I walked past my gate before checking into the Delta Sky Club. Not only were there water fountains, but workers still served food at the hot bar. Social distancing guidelines were not observed in any location in the airport – certainly not at security, at the gate or in the Sky Club. The airport failed to maintain proper social distancing procedures, even when it was relatively empty. I arrived in New York at 4 a.m. and departed five hours later. If the airport did not follow social distancing when it was easy to do so, I doubt it would follow those guidelines during busy hours.

New York is now the epicenter of the United States’ coronavirus cases, tallying 4,200 deaths and counting. Even as I sit at home in Austin, Texas, I still struggle with the idiocy of a system that endangered millions of people living in the United States. I am fortunate to have traveled through three countries and four airports on my way home and not to have contracted the virus, but other travelers may be less lucky. It was irresponsible for the government to allow me to travel without restrictions, especially at an early hour in the morning when there are few people around.

Now that the virus has spread across large parts of the country, much of which is on lockdown, there are more stringent measures in place. Airports are now increasing screenings, encouraging social distancing and reducing travel from more affected countries. I fear these steps were taken too little, too late, and that hundreds of thousands of people will die because of government negligence. All we can do now is follow social distance guidelines, stop going to friends’ homes and forget future vacation plans. If we want to save as many lives as possible, we have no choice but to work together and follow the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Matthew Zachary, a junior majoring in Latin American and hemispheric studies, is a columnist.

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