CHICAGO (CBS) — Quarantine orders are in effect for people coming to and from 22 different states to Chicago, and people who go to New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut from Illinois are also under such an order.
Still, people are getting on planes during the coronavirus pandemic. And this will to travel worries a person in charge of keeping passengers safe – particularly with another Transportation Security Administration officer having tested positive at O’Hare International Airport for total of 49 cases.
CBS 2’s Lauren Victory on Wednesday shared concerns over unmasked pat-downs.
Travel at O’Hare International Airport has taken a hit – and is also a hit for bargain hunters. You can get to Los Angeles this weekend for $110 round trip.
“It’s only encouraging those people who aren’t socially responsible to go out and travel,” said an anonymous TSA officer – but not one who tested positive recently.
That may sound harsh, but the officer worries when she sees passengers do things like go unmasked – despite a blatant O’Hare requirement to wear face coverings.
It is also a City of Chicago order and a State of Illinois mandate.
“(I say), ‘Could you cover your face please?’” the TSA worker said, “and I’ve had supervisors, and this is truth, tell me; stop me and say, ‘You know you’re not supposed to do that.’”
That is because technically, airport, city, and state rules are trumped by the federal government. Security checkpoints are under the jurisdiction of the TSA.
The TSA says passengers are “encouraged,” but not required, to wear masks. However, their social media accounts have shared the O’Hare mask requirement.
“We’re to screen them. We’re to pat them down – hand to body contact, absolutely no social distancing – and they don’t have to wear a face mask,” the TSA worker said.
An email sent to Illinois TSA employees last Friday confirmed the protocol. Officers are to offer face masks to passengers, but “either way, will conduct the patdown as required.”
“It only takes one person with one droplet coming through the checkpoint to make it go rampant again,” the worker said.
Already, six TSA officers from various airports have died from COVID-19, and more than 1,300 have tested positive for the virus. As of Wednesday, a total of 49 had tested positive at O’Hare alone.
“It’s up to the managers to review video from the last few days the person was at work and see who came in contact with this person,” the TSA worker said, “but the unfortunate thing is, like I said earlier, there are no video cameras in our breakroom.”
Interviews are also part of the TSA contact tracing efforts, a spokesman told us. He pointed to shields set up at checkpoints along with face masks, face shields, and gloves provided to each officer as ways the TSA is working to protect its own and the public.
That includes the few who chose not to wear masks.
“I get from supervisors, from co-workers, and everybody that just says, ‘Let it go, you’ll get used to it,’” the TSA officer said. “It’s all about wait times. It’s all about customer service.”
When asked why she came forward with her concerns, the officer said, “Nobody at TSA will listen to me.”
Our tipster also questions TSA and airport cleaning methods. The TSA spokesman told CBS 2 that screening areas, bins, and breakrooms are thoroughly disinfected after each confirmed coronavirus case.
We also asked the Illinois Department of Public Health – if a mask is required by Illinois and Chicago, why would a passenger be able to get through airport security? We asked further whether the IDPH would talk to the TSA about it.
The IDPH released this statement: “The State of Illinois requires face coverings to be worn in public places where it is difficult to maintain six-foot distance. It is incumbent upon all of us to follow the steps outlined by public health experts to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Employees concerned about their safety should contact their employer.”
The department did not address our specific questions.
In a statement, TSA said, in part:
TSOs and passengers will be practicing social distancing in the checkpoint queues. Signs and decals are posted in and around the checkpoints as a reminder to socially distance. Travelers are allowed to wear masks during the screening process, but may be asked to adjust the mask to visually confirm their identity or if the mask triggers an alarm during the scanning process. TSA requires that frontline personnel wear nitrile gloves when conducting screening duties and are required to use swabs when testing for explosive material. Travelers may request for new gloves to be used during the screening process.
Travelers are encouraged to follow CDC guidelines and wash their hands before and after completing the security screening process. Travelers should place personal items from their pockets such as wallets, keys, lip balm, tissues and cell phones in their carry-on bags to be screened.
Statement attributable to R. Carter Langston, a TSA spokesman.
“TSA remains committed to the health and security of our workforce and airline passengers. Throughout the pandemic, TSA has made several announcements regarding specific actions and procedures implemented at checkpoints to enhance the Health and Security of the workforce and airline passengers, all in accordance with guidelines established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection.”
TSA reports cumulative employee infections on its dedicated COVID-19 response page since the first TSA officer tested positive for COVID-19 on March 9. Among the list of those currently reported are non-uniformed federal employees who are not on the frontline of America’s transportation system. As an unprecedented and innovative solution for the most vulnerable employees, TSA announced on March 12 those at high risk could utilize Weather and Safety Leave. While that category of leave was modified on July 5, it remains available for those who are directed to quarantine and those returning from international travel. Administrator Pekoske began holding weekly Town Hall meetings on March 17, so that he could hear directly from employees about matters that are important to them.
Although TSA employees previously had the option to wear facial protection while working, it was voluntary and encouraged until Thursday, May 7 when TSA announced it was mandatory for employees to wear facial protection while at screening checkpoints. For travelers, face masks remained optional; however, a TSA officer may ask the traveler to adjust the face mask to confirm the traveler’s identity. On Thursday, May 21, TSA announced that it would implement checkpoint modifications to increase social distancing and decrease the need for physical contact between TSA officers and airline passengers. Those modifications were completed at the nearly 440 federalized airports where TSA operates checkpoints when Administrator Pekoske announced the agency’s Stay Healthy Stay Secure campaign on Tuesday, June 30. Following these modifications and announcements, the Departments of Transportation, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services jointly released the 44-page Runway to Recovery on Thursday, July 2, as a collaborative framework, among federal agencies, including TSA, for airlines and airports to mitigate the public health risks of Coronavirus.
Recognizing the importance of face masks, TSA officers have been offering them to those passengers who require a pat-down and are not wearing face masks within the checkpoint area. TSA is doubling down on its efforts to ensure that employees on the front line are equipped, protected and maintain good social distancing habits on and off duty.