A sign and screeners greet Alaska Airlines passengers arriving from Seattle at the Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. Most out-of-state travelers must show proof of a negative COVID test result in the last 72 hours, or they’re required to quarantine upon arrival. (Erin McKinstry, KCAW / June 2020)

Since 9/11, security screenings and long lines at airports have become a staple of the boarding process. Now, airline travelers across Alaska are meeting screeners and lines when they disembark too. That’s thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s plan to replace mandatory quarantines for out-of-state travelers with on-the-spot testing. 

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At 11:30 on a Saturday morning, Sitka’s airport is pretty dead. Two Alaska Airlines employees check in a handful of travelers. The only other people in the terminal are 10 Allen Marine employees. They’re donning bright orange vests with “Screener” written on the back and pulling on surgical masks and purple nitrile gloves when I arrive. 

Rob Caldwell is one of the screeners waiting for an incoming flight from Seattle.

“I was going to be working on Denali this year as a mountain guide, which is very exciting,” he said. “It was going to be my first season up there. And that got cancelled, so this is temporary.”

With a few exceptions, all travelers coming from out of state have to show proof of a negative COVID test result in the last 72 hours if they don’t want to quarantine upon arrival. Otherwise, they can take a test at the airport and quarantine until they get their results. 

Caldwell’s job is to help travelers who’ve decided to test at the airport. He stands behind a plastic shield and a “Face Masks Required” sign. From there, he hands out forms, checks IDs and sends travelers on to the next screener, who double checks their paperwork. 

“The people that are coming in are mostly like super understanding, trying to keep the community safe. It is funny though a few people kind of come through, and they either had a bad flight, or they’re just generally kind grumpy, but I’d say that’s definitely the minority,” Caldwell said.

Travelers fill out forms before taking COVID-19 tests at the Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. They’ll self-administer tests with guidance from Allen Marine employees. (Erin McKinstry, KCAW / June 2020)

Allen Marine normally operates tour boats out of Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan. But with tourism numbers way down because of the coronavirus, they’re branching out. The city recommended Allen Marine to the state. And the state then contracted with the company to conduct the new screening policies that went into effect on June 6. A spokesman with Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services said the state encouraged communities to come up with their own strategies for screening. 

Allen Marine’s Stefania Potrzuski is the company’s sales and service manager. Now, she’s also their airport screener supervisor.

“We had laid off quite a few employees due to the current situation. And also we are great customer service people because we serve guests almost year-round,” she said.

Potrzuski says the Sitka Fire Department had already set up a screening procedure before Allen Marine got involved, and they’ve been refining the process since. The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium trained the employees who are administering tests. They offer to give me one.

First, I fill out a form with some personal information. Then, I sign the back and choose to get my results over encrypted email. Allen Marine employee Rebecca Linn helps me from there.

She tells me I’ll be doing a “self-swab.” Linn hands me a long q-tip enclosed in plastic and instructs me to remove the plastic from one end. Then, I insert it up my nose to the “point of resistance” and rotate four times. I use the same swab for both nostrils.

It’s not terrible, aside from the watery eyes and the boogers. Linn assures me not to worry–they have tissues.

Next, I place the q-tip in a vial, and she attaches a sticker I filled out with my personal information. And of course, the obligatory hand sanitizer application. I’m told I’ll get my results within five to seven days.

Allen Marine employees Rebecca Linn (left) and Shelley Gillaspey (right) help passengers self-test for coronavirus. Gillaspey normally works as the school nurse for Sitka School District. (Erin McKinstry, KCAW / June 2020)

As it nears noon, the screeners take their positions. One stands by the door to the tarmac and points arriving travelers to one of two lines: those who need a test and those who don’t.

Travelers who are part of critical infrastructure or who have test results in hand queue in front of a folding table, where two screeners check paperwork and IDs. They hand out stickers that say “I’ve been screened” and vouchers for a follow up test for those who need it. Another stands at the airport exit to make sure no one without a sticker goes in or out.

Allen Marine employee Tori Shoemaker checks a traveler’s COVID test results on their cell phone at Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. She attends University of Alaska Southeast and normally works as a lifeguard during the summer. (Erin McKinstry, KCAW / June 2020)

From start to finish, the whole process takes about 20 minutes. Considering how complicated the regulations are, the whole thing goes pretty smoothly. People are directed to where they need to go. The few who look confused are quickly apprehended.

Sitka resident Jennifer Price returned from an 11-day trip to Seattle on the flight. She decided to take a test at the airport.

“I wish more people would wear their masks on the airplane, that’s my one comment,” Price said. “But, yeah, this whole effort has run smoothly.”

When I asked her about taking the COVID-19 test, she said it wasn’t a problem.

“It’s nice that I got to stick the swab up by myself using my own hand,” Price said.

Before long, the airport empties, and the clean-up process begins. They’ll do this three times a day, seven days a week until something changes. 

Oh, and in case you were wondering, my results came back negative, and it only took three days.