GREAT FALLS — Now that Cascade County has rescinded its mask mandate, will you soon be able to go to the airport without a mask? The short answer is “not yet,” but the longer answer is that that eventual change will depend on a number of factors.
Airports can essentially be divided into two parts when it comes to passing and enforcing policies like a mask mandate. First, there’s every part of the airport after you pass through the TSA security checkpoint and before you pass the “No Re-Entry Past This Point” sign. In February, the TSA implemented part of an Executive Order from President Biden requiring masks at TSA screening locations and throughout public transportation systems. According to TSA.gov, that requirement will remain in effect until at least May 11.
“They want masks to continue to be worn until they rescind that order,” explained Great Falls International Airport Director, John Faulkner. “Ideally, at some point, that order will match what’s happening in the state and our local locality. For the time being, it extends to all airports. As you all know, our numbers here in the county, we’ve been very fortunate to see them decline dramatically, and at the same time, our vaccination rate is incredibly high.”
So what about the rest of the airport? Well, those mask requirements aren’t jetting off from GTF anytime soon, but Faulkner also said that he’s seen some people around the airport briefly taking off their masks, and airport officials aren’t necessarily rushing to kick them out of the building either.
“If they’re kind of off on the side by themselves and they’ve got appropriate distances, and we’re much larger than six feet here in general, we’re looking at someone who is kind of sitting in a corner and minding their own business, we haven’t been reminding them to wear the mask,” he said. “Once they go through the checkpoint, they’re going to have to wear the mask through TSA and onto the plane.”
To clarify, masks are still required at Great Falls International Airport, as evidenced by the numerous signs posted around the facility reminding incoming and outgoing travelers. But officials at Tuesday’s Airport Authority meeting seemed to be mostly okay with letting people who were isolated in parts of the airport and not near anyone else “take a break.” Once they pass through the security checkpoint, though, masks on, says the TSA.
The Airport Authority Board also discussed the extension of airline agreements on Tuesday. The current agreements were signed in 2018, and are set to expire at the end of June. Faulkner recommended that the board attempt to sign another extension this year, instead of trying to renegotiate the agreement.
The agreements typically deal with fees, budgets, and the rates that airlines pay to operate at an airport.
“Do you think with the potential for vaccinations and a rapid rebound, that maybe a one year would be appropriate just for this scenario?” asked Airport Authority Board Member, Vincent Bakke. “Some companies are actually predicting that this time next year, we’ll be the same as 2019.”
Faulkner said that one of the issues with signing a one-year extension is that the board would have to start discussing the next extension in a matter of months.