About two million times a day, every day for the past two weeks, a passenger in an American airport has reached the front of a line for pre-flight screening by the Transportation Security Administration and handed an identification card to an officer.
Almost all of those travelers were wearing masks over their mouth and nose — as is required by law during the pandemic, to cut down on the airborne transmission of the coronavirus in transport hubs — but each of them was asked to briefly remove or lower their mask so the officer could compare their face to the photo on their ID.
Then, seconds later, the process was repeated as the next traveler stepped forward and removed their mask, standing almost exactly where the person ahead of them had stood, unmasked, for a brief conversation with the officer.
Please continue to wear a mask in the airport and on your flight. When you get to the travel document podium, the @TSA officer will ask you to remove your mask for a few seconds to make sure your face and photo on your ID match, like this officer did yesterday at @terminalBLGA pic.twitter.com/YSkpliBZ1E
— Lisa Farbstein, TSA Spokesperson (@TSA_Northeast) July 1, 2021
Before the emergence of the more infectious omicron variant of the coronavirus, just in time for the holiday travel season, TSA checkpoints were not considered particularly risky by public health experts. But the ease with which omicron spreads between unmasked people sharing the same air could change that, in a hurry.
Omicron “is so infectious, it almost needs just a whiff of infected breath and you could get infected,” immunologist and respiratory physician Peter Openshaw told BBC News on Friday.
Last month, researchers at the University of Hong Kong reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the omicron variant had spread from one fully vaccinated traveler to another across the hallway of a quarantine hotel, even though the travelers never interacted and only briefly opened their doors to retrieve meals.
“I agree that with such highly transmissible viruses, the TSA policy isn’t ideal,” Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, told me in an email. “It’s a very brief period of lowering a mask, but in a crowded indoor environment usually without good ventilation and air filtration.”
“The challenge is, you do need some sort of alternative; but yes, from a public health, infectious disease transmission perspective, it makes me uncomfortable,” said Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist who advised the Biden transition team on the pandemic. “I just flew last weekend and standing in that TSA line being asked to take off my mask, I definitely thought about that.”
Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, pointed out that the current process is also dangerous for TSA officers, many of whom are wearing loose-fitting surgical masks, which might not protect them sufficiently against the omicron variant. “TSA personnel are at significant risk, and that risk is only magnified by passengers taking down their masks for identification,” Gostin wrote in an email. “I would recommend against this high risk practice. If it were possible to dispense entirely with mask lowering, that would be ideal. If it could be done in a well ventilated or even outdoor space, it would even be safer.”
Moving the TSA checkpoints from inside airports to outside “is certainly one possibility, if the airports and TSA have the bandwidth to do that,” Gounder said. “I know the administration is super worried about doing anything that will make traveling even harder than it currently is, anything that would result in longer lines or anything like that.”
Gounder, who hosted a podcast about the pandemic in 2020 with Ron Klain, the current White House chief of staff, added that any alternative ways to identify people would need to strike “a balance between privacy and efficiency.”
“If you had retinal scans, for example, that would be a much more efficient way to do this, and you wouldn’t have people needing to take off their masks,” she noted, but that might be a tough sell to privacy advocates, with well-founded concerns, not to mention conspiracy theorists convinced that vaccines contain tracking devices.
There is a privately run service, Clear, that already operates identity verification lanes at some airports for paying customers who can skip the TSA checkpoints and have their identities verified by fingerprint and eye scans without removing their masks.
Sonny Lorrius, a TSA spokesperson, declined to answer emailed questions about whether the agency was concerned about the current screening process giving the virus a chance to spread between temporarily unmasked travelers indoors, or whether any thought had been given to moving the document checkpoints outside airport doors.
“TSA remains concerned about the increased COVID infections,” Lorrius wrote in an emailed statement, “and face masks, social distancing and checkpoint modifications that seek to reduce physical contact all remain in place for the health and safety of TSA employees and passengers.”
Lorrius added that TSA employees and travelers should consult the CDC for advice on how to remain safe while traveling. The CDC did not respond to repeated requests to comment on the TSA policy of having passengers remove their masks during the screening process.
Perhaps because the TSA was set up, after 9/11, to stop terrorists from boarding airplanes, not viruses, it has seemed slow to embrace the public health responsibilities thrust upon it by the Biden administration.
In an October letter to TSA administrator David Pekoske, Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the subcommittee on transportation, asked why the TSA was not robustly enforcing the federal requirement to wear masks in transportation settings.
“With incidents of unruly passengers at airport checkpoints and aboard planes at historic highs, we are concerned that TSA is not fully utilizing its authorities to deter this reckless and dangerous behavior,” Thompson and Coleman wrote. “Between February 2, 2021, and September 13, 2021, TSA received 4,102 reports of mask-related incidents. During that time it assessed a total of only $2,350 in civil penalties against ten passengers and simply issued warnings to more than 2,000 passengers. In contrast, the Federal Aviation Administration has fielded complaints about more than 3,500 mask-related incidents since the start of the year and has issued over $1 million in proposed fines against disruptive passengers.”