They check your boarding pass and ID. They scan your luggage, and sometimes rifle through it. They pat you down.
And until late this week, they typically weren’t wearing masks.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced Thursday that workers at its screening checkpoints, like those at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, are now required to wear masks to slow the spread of coronavirus.
The new guidance comes nearly a month after federal health officials recommended people wear face masks in public. Five TSA employees nationwide have died of COVID-19, and 516 employees have tested positive, including seven at Sea-Tac, according to the agency’s website.
Leading up to Thursday’s announcement, some travelers were puzzled why many agents remained maskless even as places like grocery stores have mandated shoppers and clerks cover their faces.
Jeff Maggioli is an intensive care unit nurse in Seattle who battles COVID-19 at his day job. He wears a mask all day long at work. He wears a mask when he goes out.
So he was shocked, he said, when he went through security at Sea-Tac Airport two weeks ago to find that of the 30 or so TSA workers he interacted with, only one was wearing a mask, and two were sitting behind plexiglass.
Everyone else? The screeners, the baggage handlers — all were working as though the novel coronavirus were not stalking the land.
“It was one of those moments,” Maggioli said. “You think, ‘Something’s wrong here.’ “
The Port of Seattle, which oversees Sea-Tac, has not followed the TSA’s lead.
Airport employees are still not required to wear facial coverings, though the port has provided masks for frontline workers like janitors, airport guides and employee screening staff if they choose to wear them, Sea-Tac spokesperson Perry Cooper wrote in an email to the Seattle Times.
Police and firefighters that work for the port respond to calls with appropriate personal protective equipment, including N-95 masks.
Baggage handlers are employed by airlines, not the Port of Seattle, and may have different rules about protective equipment and social distancing, Cooper said.
Nevertheless, plummeting travel volumes have made it easier to stay socially distant at Sea-Tac. Travel through Sea-Tac is down 95% compared to last year, posing a big budget challenge for the airport. Currently, roughly 3,800 people pass through Sea-Tac daily, compared to as many as 55,000 a day in May 2019.
As social-distancing guidelines lift, the Port will seek to encourage passengers it’s safe to fly again, including by revamping health and safety standards at Sea-Tac, according to a Port Commission memo: spacing security lines and seating, incorporating touchless technology and rethinking how it cleans terminals.
The five-member commission is likely to discuss whether to require employees to wear masks at a May 12 meeting, Cooper said.
The hard work that Washingtonians are doing to maintain social distancing — often at great inconvenience and financial pain — can easily be undone at the airport, Maggioli said, as travelers from all corners of the globe commingle in close quarters with staff.
“I’d like to think government would lead the way,” he said.