Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is one of 13 airports around the country designated for coronavirus-related screenings in response to the latest travel restrictions, but so far appears to have been spared the large crowds and long waits reported elsewhere.
While the lack of crowds makes it easier for travelers to maintain distance from other people as recommended by health officials, some who passed through Sea-Tac recently worried that they didn’t see more screening efforts.
Sea-Tac was designated as one of the airports where travelers returning from Europe would be screened, after President Trump announced new restrictions on travel to and from Europe on Wednesday. On Saturday, reports from other designated airports, like Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, described large crowds and long waits.
A freer international arrivals schedule may be one reason why Sea-Tac isn’t seeing the lines and crowds that other airports are seeing, according to Perry Cooper, senior manager of media relations at the Port of Seattle.
Flights from Europe at Sea-Tac are spread out among the schedule, Cooper said. International flights were previously suspended to mainland China and several airlines including Delta and Korean Air have suspended or reduced the frequencies of flights.
There is a daily peak of international arrivals between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., according to Cooper.
“When you take out arrivals in that peak you have more time between what is left,” he wrote in an email.
But even with the lighter schedule, travelers arriving at Sea-Tac from Europe say they were surprised when they underwent little to no additional screening by public health officials upon arrival.
Jason Smith, a Ballard resident who flew in from Norway by way of Reykjavik on Saturday night, described the scene at Sea-Tac as “standard.”
“We were expecting something in terms of screening when we got back, but it was quite surprising that we weren’t subject to anything really,” said Smith.
According to Smith, who flew along with his fiancee on Iceland Air, the only screening they had was a form handed out 30 minutes before landing. The form asked for contact information and where the travelers would be staying for the next 14 days.
Inside the airport, Smith says he and his fiancee passed through the S gates and customs as usual for a return from overseas. There was a small area on the jet bridge where people in masks were pulling a few travelers aside for screening, according to Smith, but most passengers passed through passport control with no additional screening.
“No temperature checks, no questions about symptoms,” Smith said. “I had read some stories about what travelers in Chicago and New York are experiencing and I was expecting a lot more hassle. My impression after going through that was ‘Wow, Seattle is very porous in terms of people coming in.’ ”
According to an update posted on the Port of Seattle’s website on Saturday, public health officials are monitoring travelers at Sea-Tac for those presenting symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. They’re also practicing infectious disease protocols like reviewing reports from airline crew members about passengers with symptoms.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials at the airport are watching for symptomatic travelers, doing random temperature checks, giving out information, questionnaires and advising people to voluntarily stay at home for 14 days, according to Cooper.
“We’re just like all the others accepting Europe travelers around the country. … The CDC is doing their additional screening process as they’ve announced,” Cooper wrote in an email. “The airport is not part of that process or those decisions. We are here to help manage the facility and help how we can with them but the screenings are done by the federal agencies in charge.”
Cooper said the CDC began screening Saturday and has additional staff on hand.
According to the COVID-19 Travel Notice for Europe on the CDC website, the CDC is directing travelers returning from Europe to self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving in the U.S. by staying at home, practice social distancing and monitor their own health.
No official comment from the CDC was available as of Sunday afternoon.
However, several travelers who have recently arrived at Sea-Tac from Europe say they are worried about an apparent lack of CDC screening happening at the airport.
Seattle resident Seth Wilkinson said he was disturbed to hear that his mother, Missy Vaux, 75, was not screened after returning to Seattle on Saturday after a monthlong stay in Spain.
“She’s exactly who should be getting screened,” said Wilkinson. “She’s a 75-year-old woman coming back from Spain, and there was just nothing. It just seems like a total sham.”
Vaux said that she and the other passengers on the flight filled out two forms on their British Air flight from Heathrow Airport in London.
One of the forms was identified as a “Public Health Passenger Locator Form,” on which it was noted that the form needed to be completed whenever public health officials suspect a communicable disease onboard a flight. “Your information will help public health officers to contact you if you were exposed to a communicable disease,” the form read.
The second form asked for similar information, but did not indicate who created the form or its intended purpose. Both forms asked for passengers’ names, contact information, and an emergency contact.
Vaux said neither of the forms were collected.
After disembarking, Vaux said about 12 to 20 unidentified people in masks were lining the jet bridge, but she did not see any of the arriving passengers being pulled aside for screening and asked any questions.
“We got off the plane and it was just a joke,” said Vaux. “When I put it all together after I got home, I thought this is just outrageous. … I mean, nobody even asked ‘Where have you been? What have you done? How do you feel?’ ”
Vaux, who is now at home in Portland, said she isn’t showing any symptoms and is fine.
For Smith, the apparent lack of screening by public health officers at Sea-Tac makes him worry about COVID-19 spreading in the area.
“There were a good amount of people that went through this nonexistent screening process unchecked,” said Smith “My impression was ‘Wow, there have got to be so many more people walking around with this thing than what’s reported or known.’”
Smith and his fiancee are following guidelines from the CDC and King County public health officials and are self-quarantining at home.f