The Humboldt County airport in McKinleyville will remain open amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Times-Standard file)
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

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.

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

blog comments powered by Disqus