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How To Ensure Public Safety In Crowded Airports


The nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, says COVID-19 cases are surging out of control even as crowds at the nation's airports are also surging. Over the past week, the Transportation Security Administration, the TSA, is reporting the highest number of air travelers since the pandemic began, which could, of course, make the COVID count even worse. Sarah McKeon is deputy general manager of New Jersey airports at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which means she oversees Newark Airport. She joins us now to talk about their efforts to keep travelers safe.

Sarah McKeon, welcome.

SARAH MCKEON: Thank you so much, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Start just by painting us a picture. Newark Airport during the holiday season would normally be crazy busy. What does it look like these days?

MCKEON: So these days, it's actually quote-unquote "relatively close" to crazy busy in terms of COVID times. We're seeing our highest numbers since COVID hit. However, in a year-over-year comparison, we're about 66% down from our passenger counts this time - you know, compared to this time last year.

KELLY: Yeah. I'm sure you've got all kinds of COVID precautions in place - signs up telling people to wear masks and socially distance and all the rest. But we are seeing images of people in airports all over the country who are not doing that, who are shoulder to shoulder, many people not wearing masks. So I guess my question to you is, it's one thing to make the rules and post the rules but another thing to try to enforce them. How is that going?

MCKEON: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, it is one of - human behavior is one of the most frustrating things in trying to combat the spread of COVID-19 across the board, right? You are required to wear a face covering at all times, whether you're an employee or you're a passenger. We do have fines that can be issued to the public. If they are asked to put a mask on and they do not comply, a $50 fine can be imposed and has been imposed and will be imposed...

KELLY: How many of those - if I may interrupt, how many of those tickets have y'all had to issue?

MCKEON: Several have been issued at this point. I don't have the exact number. The approach has been reminding people to wear a mask on, like, the first try. Most of the time, 90% of people will put the mask on or put it on properly if it's not being worn correctly.

KELLY: Right. There's a lot of dangling below the nose and around the neck.

MCKEON: So much.

KELLY: Yeah.

MCKEON: Yes. Yes. And that will be corrected as people are going through - either by law enforcement or by on-facility operations staff.

KELLY: You know, I suppose the tricky thing - and I speak as someone who has flown during the pandemic - is the gray areas. It's - people mean to keep their mask on, but then they stop and get a burger in the food court. And then they want to make a call and that - you know, it's that slippery slope that I imagine is so tricky to police.

MCKEON: Yeah, absolutely. The rule, by and large, is if you're sitting and you have a plate of food in front of you and you're actively eating, you know, you will not be told, hey, put a mask on because it's clear that you're eating. However, if you're sitting at that same food court table and your plate is clean, you will be asked to put the mask on.

KELLY: Yeah. Can I ask just how often for you - I'm sure you walk around the airport all the time. How often do you see people and think, uh-oh, we got to go sort out that one?

MCKEON: You know, I go in several days a week, and I do walk the terminals. By and large, 95-plus percentage of people that I encounter are wearing masks and wearing them properly. The most common thing that I see happen is when I see people who have completed eating a meal who maybe had the mask down, and it's just reminding them to put it back up. And usually, when I say it or I, you know, make the motion with my hand, the look of realization will pop up in their eyes, and they will immediately pull it back up and say thanks for the reminder.

KELLY: Well, if you could speak directly to all the folks who may be flying this holiday week, what would you tell them?

MCKEON: I would tell them that we're super excited to have them because the airport just doesn't feel the same without people being present in the volumes that we had previously. But I would just remind people to be patient - everybody's going through this travel experience with higher stress levels across the board - and to remember that people are empowered, also. If they see something that doesn't look right, you know, please notify the airport so that we can make corrections, you know, on the spot.

KELLY: That is Sarah McKeon, deputy general manager of New Jersey airports at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Thank you and happy New Year.

MCKEON: Same to you, Mary Louise. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.