Why Alaska’s COVID-19 airport screening lines might be skipped or unstaffed

A traveler off of a flight from Seattle makes his way through a COVID-19 screening line at Juneau International Airport on June 26, 2020. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

It’s been a month since Gov. Mike Dunleavy created an option for out-of-state travelers to skip a 14-day quarantine by coming with proof of a recent, negative COVID-19 test result.

Ten of the state’s airports have screening lines so passengers can show test results or talk through options before leaving the airport. But some travelers have seen screening lines being bypassed en masse or unstaffed. Is the process working?

Juneau Assembly member Carole Triem flew into Anchorage recently. She started in Juneau and hopped aboard a flight that originated in Seattle. Onboard, she said the flight crew made an announcement about filling out a travel declaration.

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She got off the plane in Anchorage, “And by the time I got to where you leave the secured area and walk out to the baggage claim, I walked by a number of tables that looked like they must have been set up to do testing, but there was nobody there,” she said. “I didn’t see a single person. … Nobody asked me where I had been, or if I had test results, or if I’d been out of state. I just left the airport.”

She said most people leaving with her just walked right out.

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“There’s potential for a lot of people to come who might have COVID, right? Because they’re coming from out of state,” she said. “And I assumed that in Anchorage, there would be people paying attention, and trying to track people and trying to get people tested, and see if they’re coming from out of state … and I thought they would be trying to enforce those things. And it’s a little scary that there’s this potential place for an unknown number of positive people to enter the state and we would have no idea.”

Tessa Walker Linderman is a nurse consultant with the state Division of Public Health, but for the COVID-19 response, she’s the port of entry coordinator. And she had an explanation for what Triem experienced in Anchorage.

Walker Linderman said flight volumes are way down in Anchorage, so it’s easy for screeners to be flexible. Passengers coming off of direct, out-of-state flights get funneled into screening. But for in-state flights, the screeners can stand down.

Triem was on the so-called “milk run” that begins in Seattle and makes stops on the way to Anchorage. Walker Linderman said, according to Alaska Airlines, there are “practically zero” passengers flying from Seattle to Anchorage that way. The airline told her they aren’t even offering Seattle-to-Anchorage tickets on the milk run.

Walker Linderman said that likely explains why Triem and other travelers sometimes aren’t seeing screeners or passengers being sorted. There simply may be no screening or sorting to do when they happen to have landed.

“I know the intent is that there’s somebody there that’s trying to identify who’s in-state, who’s out-of-state,” Walker Lindermand said. “Are we standing there, asking to look at everyone’s ticket? We’re not, we’re not, no. We are trusting that everyone’s honest about where they started their travel. … We are not chasing people down and making people comply.”

Walker Linderman said she is in regular contact with the airport screeners around the state, and is sharing feedback with them about travelers’ experiences, including these anecdotes.

Capstone Clinic and Beacon OHSS, the contractors handling airport screening in Anchorage and Fairbanks, didn’t return requests for comment.

At Juneau International Airport, Capital City Fire/Rescue is handling screening.

On a recent Friday afternoon, a pair of 737s landed within a few minutes of each other: one from Anchorage and one from Seattle. Assistant Chief Travis Mead watched how his screening team handled the mix of out-of-state and in-state passengers.

If you haven’t been out of state, you’re just supposed to leave like in normal, non-pandemic times.

Out-of-state travelers are supposed to go into a line for paperwork and screening. The screeners individually collect forms and check COVID-19 test documents. They talk to each traveler individually about their options and obligations for quarantining and testing.

A passenger off of a flight from Seattle hands paperwork to a screener related to a COVID-19 health mandate at Juneau International Airport on June 26, 2020.
A passenger off of a flight from Seattle hands paperwork to a screener related to a COVID-19 health mandate at Juneau International Airport on June 26, 2020. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

A big wave of people left with almost no one going into the screening line.

“Those are all Alaska residents there,” Mead said.

He points out a worker along the winding path out of security who directs in-state and out-of-state travelers into different lanes.

After a few minutes, the wave passes. Then, a screener cordons off the exit for in-state travelers. Almost everyone coming through the next wave, presumably off of the Seattle flight, goes into the screening line.

Downstairs, passengers wait in line for testing or on the curb for rides.

Bridget Braley is returning home to Juneau from the Seattle area. She said the screening process was quick and efficient.

“They gave us the paperwork to fill out on the airplane,” she said. “So we got off and I ended up getting a test at the airport. And I haven’t been tested before. So I’m gonna go home and quarantine. But it was really streamlined. I don’t know if I got in early, but I got out way quicker than I expected, so I’m waiting for my ride.”

A man waits in line for a COVID-19 test at Juneau International Airport on June 26, 2020.
A man waits in line for a COVID-19 test at Juneau International Airport on June 26, 2020. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Al Melanson is visiting from California.

“They were doing a good job upstairs. They were awful helpful,” he said. “So I’m in line to get another COVID-19 test. … I’m a little nervous, that’s all, ‘cause I’m anxious to catch this plane.”

Meanwhile, state health officials are tracking a new wave of people with active COVID-19 infections. The flat curve Alaska had for most of May isn’t flat anymore.