Nov 24, 2020 - COVID

How do you socially distance in a crowded airport like Charlotte Douglas?

Charlotte Douglas International Airport

Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Photo: Paige Hopkins/Axios Charlotte

Tuesday begins the busiest stretch of air travel at Charlotte Douglas all year.

The airport will have upwards of 17,000 originating passengers — or travelers who begin their journey at the airport — on Tuesday and Wednesday. Sunday will be the busiest day, though, with 22,000 originating passengers, according to airport officials. On top of that, there’ll be another roughly 60,000 connecting passengers moving through Charlotte Douglas.

Statistically the sixth busiest airport in the nation, Charlotte Douglas has managed to look busier than even O’Hare and JFK over the past few months.

Normally that would be a good sign. But in a pandemic, crowds are exactly what you don’t want to see.

The swell in local air traffic comes days after the CDC issued an urgent plea to Americans last week: Avoid Thanksgiving travel.

At a time when we should avoid crowds, and when we should be social distancing, how do we keep safe at a busy airport?

There are no capacity limits inside airports. A September 30 executive order from Governor Cooper specifically exempts airports in the phase three mass gathering limits. On top of that, airport officials can’t explicitly force travelers to space themselves out if they notice crowds forming, say, in front of departure gates.

The airport also doesn’t have the authority to remove a passenger who is Covid-positive — or who refuses to wear a mask.

“The only way we would ban a passenger from the airport is if they create a disturbance,” CLT’s Chief Operating Officer Jack Christine said last week.

Of course, airlines like American and Delta require passengers to wear masks before boarding. The airport is also telling people to cover their faces through signs all over the building.

Charlotte Douglas
Baggage claim area at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on November 18, 2020.

“The difference is, airlines are private companies. They can create whatever policy they want and handle enforcement,” Christine said. “From an airport perspective, we are a transportation hub and by the law, we have to provide this platform for transportation.”

For its part, Charlotte Douglas is taking extra precaution to make sure the airport is safe and clean amid the influx of travelers.

Here are some ways it’s doing that:

  • CLT has 60 hand sanitizing units throughout the concourses and atrium.
  • Housekeeping crews are working 24/7, giving extra attention to areas that travelers touch often (tables, chairs, kiosks, hand rails, etc.).
  • CLT is using hospital-grade air filtration technology that can capture 98-99 percent of airborne particles like viruses and bacteria.
  • The airport installed protective shields in areas like shuttle buses, customer service counters, and security checkpoints.

UNC Charlotte public health sciences professor Dr. Melinda Forthofer is very concerned about the spike in cases that could result from Thanksgiving travel.

Mask sign at Charlotte Douglas International Airport
Mask sign at Charlotte Douglas International Airport

But for Forthofer, it’s not the traveling process that worries her most. It’s what happens when people reach their destination — mingling with people outside their immediate household.

When people travel and operate in public spaces these days, they’re likely to follow the rules set out at those places, Forthofer says. When they get to wherever they’re going, they’re more likely to let their guards down.

“If you have to be in a household that is not your normal household, treat it like you’re in a public place,” Forthofer says. That means wear a mask in public space. Keep your distance — and don’t hug your parents even if you haven’t seen them for months, she says. Open windows and be outside as much as possible.

Testing is certainly something people should consider if they are traveling. But Forthofer says tests are more like a snapshot. They’re not an insurance policy. If you were exposed to Covid-19 yesterday, it won’t show up in a test today.

While Forthofer does not recommend visiting family members, she urges anyone who is traveling to take those extra steps.

“Zoom Thanksgiving is better than ICU Christmas,” Forthofer says, echoing a phrase that’s become popular in recent weeks.

“By social distancing this year for the holidays we are showing our loved ones how much we care about them and want to celebrate with them in 2021.”

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