The security line at Denver International Airport on Friday wasn’t nearly as busy as it was this time last year, so close to Thanksgiving, but it was still bustling with activity when the checkpoint came to a halt.
“May I have your attention please,” a voice boomed over the public address system. “Please join the Transportation Security Administration in observing a moment of silence.”
The somber occasion was a memorial for Eduard Faktorovich, a 49-year old TSA agent who died last week of complications related to COVID-19. His family sat on the landing overlooking the snaking security line as passengers and employees peered up quietly. Then, “Taps” echoed through the cavernous terminal as Adams County Sheriff Deputy Tim Lambert fingered his silver trumpet.
After Colorado Federal Security Director Larry Nau handed a medal and a folded American flag to Faktorovich’s brother, Oleg, he told Denverite he hopes the traveling public realizes the responsibility they share in keeping his employees safe.
“I’ve done what I can to protect them,” he said of his staff. “My plea to the community is, please, use those face shields and practice social distancing, all the guidelines that CDC has put out there for us.”
With Thanksgiving upon us, he said the message was more important than ever. The CDC has asked Americans to avoid traveling for the holiday.
Faktorovich’s niece, Megan, described her uncle as “the brightest human being you could ever meet.”
“He was just so friendly, and he was just compatible with everyone,” she said. “There was always something that he could relate to someone else, and he was just someone that you really wanted to have in your life.”
Faktorovich grew up in Belarus and came straight to Denver when he moved to the Unites States of America. Megan said he was a travel agent for the city’s Russian community for years. He became a known figure in that world of expatriates. He was thrilled to work at TSA when he got the job a few years ago, she said. He loved enabling people to see new places. She said the job also offered him stability in Denver’s expensive market.
Megan has also said her uncle worried about getting sick at work.
Coronavirus cases have risen to unprecedented levels in Denver as more and more passengers have come back to the airport. On the way to their gates, some of those customers have boarded the DIA tram system in horror when they realized how densely cars were packed. But not everyone is worried, and plenty more people will pass through the terminal now that the winter holiday season has begun.
Airports across the nation emptied out in March and April, but TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers told us few other airports have bounced back like DIA.
She said it’s “hard to tell” if the growing business there translates to greater risk for her colleagues. Even if it does, TSA workers will not stop working the security lines.
“We will always be on the job as essential workers. Our employees will always be in place,” she said. “We have no choice but to continue our job for those who have to travel.”
Dankers said TSA has done what it can to protect agents, about 1,000 of which work in Denver. They have PPE and distancing protocol to follow. They have a new category of leave that allows workers to take time off without penalty if they think they may be sick. They are instructed to be careful both on the job and at home when they’re not working.
The rest, she said, is on the traveling public. Her agency has tried to message to passengers how crucial it is they show up without contraband and with their ducks in a row.
“If they come to the checkpoint prepared, with no prohibited items, they’ll be through this environment in a very short period of time. They won’t even have contact with an employee,” she said. “They’re part of the solution as well.”
Dankers and Nau both pointed to economics as a reality that cannot be avoided.
“Aviation is so important to our economy as a nation,” Nau said. “Without the aviation industry, our economy struggles. Our goal is to make sure they’re secure and to make sure that we can streamline our processes so that folks can get through and have confidence.”
Dankers knows there’s a “big debate” in the nation right now that pits safety measures against economic stability, but “that discussion happens around us,” she said.
Customers are willing to take precautions, whether they think there’s a crisis or not.
There were plenty of masks in TSA’s line on Friday. They only dropped beneath their wearers’ chins at the ID check, when agents need to see peoples’ faces in full. But not everyone was excited to wear them.
Melissa Cadogan and Kerry Iselin, who were on their way to celebrate Thanksgiving in Florida with their young children in tow, both said they didn’t buy the hype of this pandemic.
“The way the cases are being stated right now misrepresentative,” Cadogan said. “We also feel that the mainstream media is not covering a lot of what we’re reading. We feel like we’re getting one narrative.”
Iselin expressed doubt that cloth masks “do very much at all.” He wouldn’t usually wear one voluntarily, but he’s willing to stick it out at the airport, where he risks citation if he doesn’t comply with the rules.
“Am I doing it for my safety? No,” he said. “If the person sitting next to us feels more comfortable, I’ll do it for that person.”
Iselin said safety must come down to a personal choice. People like him, who aren’t afraid of the virus, should not be limited in their ability to go out and to travel.
“If you’re really that scared of a situation, then maybe you do need to stay home,” he said. The same goes for workers: “Maybe look at getting a different job. If this was my job, would I come? Yes, because I think it’s important for people to travel and see family.”
Meanwhile, at baggage claim, Kalela Woolen was waiting to head to an Airbnb where she and her two best college friends would celebrate the holiday.
Woolen said she “constantly” thinks about the virus, and brought tons of masks, hand sanitizer and wipes to insulate herself on the journey.
Her friend, Yolonda Perry, said she thinks about safety a lot “as a double minority,” both Black and female. But Perry said she’s placed her faith in God to protect her. Besides, she said, she’s already missed out on graduation and family gatherings.
“We did everything we were supposed to do all summer. All year,” she said. “At some point, we do recognize that we do have to get back to living lives, going back to work and stuff like that.”
Plus, Woolen added, her airline tickets that were canceled back in the spring were about to expire: “Maybe if we could have got the tickets extended for an extended period of time, we wouldn’t have to travel right now.”
Woolen said she did feel a responsibility to keep airport workers safe, the same way she needs to look out for herself. She worries that some travelers won’t think much about other people.
“The problem with America is we’re just such an individualistic society. We don’t have a sense of community,” she said. “For TSA workers to stay safe, it not only has to come from the staff themselves. It has to come from people who are visiting the airport.”