A "Welcome to Oakland" sign at Oakland International Airport lets arriving passengers know exactly what city they're in. Credit: Ricky Rodas

On a recent afternoon at Oakland International Airport, a small group of precheck agents stood in the lobby waiting to help travelers begin the screening process. Some were masked, others were not. “I’m in between choosing to wear it or not,” one agent, who was not masked, told The Oaklandside. Masking has been a good thing for everyone, they said, but “I don’t like wearing it anymore.” 

On Monday, April 18, a judge in Florida voided the federal mandate requiring employees and travelers to wear a mask at airports and on planes, buses, trains, and other modes of mass public transit. It is now up to the discretion of airports and airline companies whether to require masking. Many Bay Area airports, including Oakland International, have opted to let individuals decide. 

Airport spokesperson Kaley Skantz told The Oaklandside in a statement, “We recognize that travelers and employees will have varied opinions about this sudden change, and we ask that people respect the individual decision to wear a face mask or not. Our commitment to the health, safety and security of everyone at O-A-K remains our top priority. We look forward to seeing many faces, masked or not, at O-A-K.”

The Oaklandside wanted to hear from workers who spend long hours interfacing with the public at Oakland International, to get their view on the policy change. We spoke with an array of workers onsite at the airport, including precheck agents, taxi attendants, baggage service agents, and others. All of the people we interviewed requested anonymity, citing job security concerns. 

Most patrons we observed walking through Oakland International’s public area were unmasked, though masking appeared to be more mixed among workers. Some walked in groups visibly laughing and smiling, while others carried on with theirs tasks fully masked. 

The precheck agent we spoke to who was unmasked, said they began working at Oakland International near the start of the pandemic in 2020, and that until this week, the airport made it very clear to patrons via signage and loudspeaker announcements that masks were required. But now that masking is optional, “we’ve already seen a lot more people with the masks off,” they said. 

If the pandemic worsened and the masking became required again, the agent said they’d have no problem wearing one and encouraging others to do the same. As long as they’re given a choice, however, “I’d choose not to wear it.”

The COVID-19 transmission level in Alameda County is currently categorized as low by the Centers for Disease Control. Nearly 82% of people in Oakland are now fully vaccinated, according to the Alameda County health department.

Passengers wait beside the baggage carousel to pick their luggage up. Credit: Ricky Rodas

Most of the workers we interviewed felt that Oakland International has done an adequate job of prioritizing worker safety throughout the pandemic. “I think they did their best,” one taxi attendant said. The attendant, who helps travelers connect with taxi cab drivers, said they’ll continue wearing a mask to make patrons feel more comfortable approaching the taxi kiosk, even though they’d physically be more comfortable breathing the fresh air without one. “If I’m here to serve the people, then I will wear it,” the attendant said.

An employee stationed at one of the information desks agreed that masks are uncomfortable to wear. “I don’t think anybody loves wearing a mask,” said the employee, who nevertheless wore a N-95 mask. “But we do it to keep others safe.

When asked whether they were satisfied with the airport’s COVID safety protocols, the worker at the information made a “so-so” hand gesture through the glass wall separating them from the public. They said they’ve worked at Oakland International for a decade, and love the job because “it allows me to get out of the house and meet new people.” But they’re not a fan of the optional masking, and said it makes them feel less safe. “We haven’t been having as many COVID-related deaths lately, and I think masking has prevented the spread,” they said.

Two agents working the same luggage counter felt similarly. Both wore N-95 masks while waiting for patrons to check their bags. “I think we should most definitely have to wear masks,” one said. “Because it’s not like COVID just disappeared.” The other agent agreed and said vaccinations and masks work hand-in-hand. “Vaccinated or not,” they said, “I’m still going to wear my mask.”

Both of the bag-check agents said they enjoy interacting with people from different parts of the world, and that working in close quarters every day with their airport colleagues creates familial bonds. The downside? Contending with the fear that at any time, they could contract COVID-19. “If you sneeze or cough,” the second agent said about unmasked travelers and coworkers, “you need to cover your mouth.” 

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.