Air­port will not shut down

Times Standard (Eureka) - - FRONT PAGE - By Shomik Mukher­jee smukher­jee@times-stan­dard.com @ShomikMukh­er­jee on Twit­ter

The Humboldt County air­port in McKinleyvi­lle will re­main open amid the coro­n­avirus pan­demic, though flights have been limited and health of­fi­cials are urg­ing peo­ple not to fly un­less ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary, the county health of­fi­cer said.

“Lo­cal health depart­ments or coun­ties are not in a po­si­tion to shut down air travel. It’s a de­ci­sion that hap­pens out­side of our area,” Dr. Teresa Frankovich said Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon in a me­dia ses­sion.

At press time, the county has now 10 con­firmed cases of COVID-19, the dis­ease caused by the new coro­n­avirus. At least of six of those cases were part of the same travel group.

On Tues­day, the county flagged two re­cent flights to the air­port — from Los An­ge­les (March 16) and San Fran­cisco (March 18) — as hav­ing pre­sented “pos­si­ble ex­po­sure for COVID-19 in­fec­tion.”

Last week, the air­port an­nounced it would sus­pend flights to Den­ver. As a whole, flights to the air­port are now limited to two each day from San Fran­cisco and one from Los An­ge­les.

Avi­a­tion di­rec­tor Cody Rog­gatz de­clined to an­swer any ques­tions on Wed­nes­day and redi­rected the Times-Stan­dard to the county’s health depart­ment, which of­fered com­ments through Frankovich’s me­dia ses­sion.

Health of­fi­cials and the county sher­iff have urged the pub­lic not to travel, by air or oth­er­wise. But the air­port is an es­sen­tial ser­vice and will re­main open, Frankovich said Wed­nes­day.

“Peo­ple, for in­stance, who are providers who need to move in and out of the area, and I think, lo­gis­ti­cally, we need to make that pos­si­ble while min­i­miz­ing ev­ery­thing that is non-es­sen­tial travel,” Frankovich said.

The health of­fi­cer made clear that non-es­sen­tial travel is “not rec­om­mended in any shape or form.”

It’s un­clear what pro­ce­dures the air­port is tak­ing to en­sure the health and safety of its em­ploy­ees, or if staff will be laid off due to re­duced ser­vices. Other air­ports around the coun­try have cut staff due to de­creased rev­enue.

At least one air­line em­ployee, who is now at home, said Wed­nes­day she’s con­cerned about the safety of air­port staff.

“There are peo­ple scrub­bing down the planes, but I’m wor­ried,” said Hai­ley Lamb, a SkyWest em­ployee. “The flight crew and flight at­ten­dants are around all the germs; they’re stuck in that air­craft space all day with 50 other peo­ple.”

Lamb, who pre­vi­ously ran for Eureka City Coun­cil, has taken three months of leave from the air­port to re­duce the risk of be­ing ex­posed to the virus and in­fect­ing her father, long­time Humboldt County Sher­iff’s deputy Char­lie Lamb, who is battling can­cer.

Nei­ther SkyWest Air­lines

or United Air­lines — both of which ser­vice the county air­port — re­turned the Times-Stan­dard’s re­quests for com­ment on Wed­nes­day.

Air­line staff has taken ex­tra pre­cau­tions to clean air­planes amid the virus’ spread, but the air­port is likely to lose un­prece­dented rev­enue from the pan­demic, said Greg Foster of Fly Humboldt, which pro­motes and mar­kets lo­cal air travel.

“Traf­fic was up at the start of this year,” Foster said Wed­nes­day. “Clearly, the March re­port — which is go­ing to be re­leased the first week of April — will change that sig­nif­i­cantly,” Foster said.

He added that some pas­sen­ger planes have switched to car­ry­ing cargo to make up for lost rev­enue.

The air­port’s fi­nances have been the sub­ject of le­gal ac­tion. Af­ter a whistle­blower com­plaint in 2017 al­leged of­fi­cials had, for years, mis­man­aged the air­port’s fi­nances, the county agreed to a stip­u­la­tion last year that it had failed to meet proper reg­u­la­tions in ob­tain­ing fed­eral grants.

In or­der to avoid pay­ing back those grants to the sum of $50 mil­lion, the county in Jan­uary hired an out­side con­sul­tant to en­sure its prac­tices are back on track.

TIMES-STAN­DARD FILE

The Humboldt County air­port in McKinleyvi­lle will re­main open amid the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

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