How To Assess If An Airport Is High-Risk For COVID-19

Americans have been skittish about flying during the coronavirus pandemic, and many wonder whether it’s safe it is to get on a plane when COVID-19 is surging across the country.

Most analyses of air travel safety have focused on airlines’ specific policies — are they sanitizing the aircraft? enforcing masking? blocking the middle seat? — but you should also take into consideration the airports through which you will pass.

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Here are three questions to ask to help assess whether it’s a good idea to travel through a specific airport right now:

Is the airport located in a current COVID-19 hot spot?

It stands to reason that if you travel into or through a place where the coronavirus is spreading at an accelerated or out-of-control rate, you are putting yourself at higher risk.

You can answer this question using the Harvard Global Health Institute’s risk-assessment tool, whose color-coded map gives each county and state a rating of green, yellow, orange or red, based upon the number of new daily positive cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people over a seven-day rolling average. Counties that are colored red have an infection rate higher than 25 new cases per 100,000 people, which means the community is “at a tipping point” and should be under stay-at-home orders, according to Harvard researchers.

Major U.S. airports located in current hot spots include but are not limited to:

  • Miami Int’l – Miami-Dade Co., FL – 106.0 cases/100K
  • Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Int’l – Broward Co., FL – 72.3 cases/100K
  • Orlando Int’l – Orange Co., FL – 60.4 cases/100K
  • Nashville Int’l – Davidson Co., TN – 52.5 cases/100K
  • Phoenix Sky Harbor – Maricopa Co., AZ – 49.0 cases/100K
  • Tampa Int’l – Hillsborough Co., FL – 46.0 cases/100K
  • McCarran Int’l – Clark Co., NV – 44.2 cases/100K
  • Dallas/Ft. Worth Int’l – Dallas Co., TX – 41.6 cases/100K
  • George Bush Intercontinental – Harris Co., TX – 35.0 cases/100K
  • Louis Armstrong New Orleans Int’l – Jefferson Par., LA – 34.2 cases/100K
  • Austin-Bergstrom Int’l – Travis Co., TX – 32.6 cases/100K
  • Los Angeles Int’l – Los Angeles Co., CA – 32.4 cases/100K
  • Charlotte-Douglas Int’l – Mecklenburg Co., NC – 31.4 cases/100K
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Int’l – Clayton Co., GA – 28.2 cases/100K

When was the last time a TSA officer tested positive for COVID-19 at that airport?

Since the pandemic began, over 1,100 Transportation Security Administration officers have contracted COVID-19 and six officers have died from the disease.

And just since the July 4th weekend, TSA officers at a whopping 51 U.S. airports have tested positive for COVID-19, according to agency data. Notably, every airport listed above has had at least one TSA officer test positive over the past two weeks.

The TSA posts daily updates of COVID-19 data, so you can check to see how recently the last officer at a specific airport tested positive.

Are face masks required inside the airport?

Given the enormous body of evidence that demonstrates wearing face masks helps stop the spread of COVID-19, this question is a good marker to assess whether a particular airport is doing all it can to keep passengers safe during the pandemic.

Airports Council International, which represents commercial airports, has been asking for a federal mask mandate at all U.S. airports, but so far this effort has been unsuccessful. In the absence of a federal law regarding face masks, airports across the country have inconsistent standards for facial coverings and most airports are allowed to set their own policies.

If you are concerned about an airport’s mask policy, be sure to do your own research before booking your flight. You can usually look up the airport’s policy online but you may have to call the airport directly.

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In states where there is no face mask mandate, there may be a local mandate.

For example, in Florida, the current epicenter for COVID-19 infections in the United States, Governor Ron DeSantis has not issued a mask mandate. Miami International Airport only recently began requiring both employees and travelers to wear face masks, following a Miami-Dade County mandate. Likewise, Orlando International Airport and Tampa International Airport now require mask wearing, thanks to mayors’ executive orders.


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