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Last night, I was in the crowded environment I’ve seen since the COVID-19 pandemic began: a train cart at Denver International Airport.

My wife and I were among the first to enter the compartment due to her broken left leg. A few weeks ago she misstepped off our porch and fractured her tibia and fibula – a condition that was fixed by a plaster cast to the knee. As a result, she was transported by DIA in a wheelchair that was pushed by a staff member. I offered to do the job but was told I couldn’t due to liability issues. As soon as we got inside, tons of people poured into the car and more came to us at the next stop on the way to the terminal and baggage claim. It didn’t take long for each person to be in close contact with at least one other returning passenger, and often two, three, or four. My wife was even hit by a bag carried by an apologetic guy after he was pushed in her direction.

At about this time, the voice of Mayor Michael Hancock greeted us in town, advising us to wear face covers and to keep physical distance wherever possible. It was all I could do to keep myself from laughing out loud.

This scenario came as no surprise – although I was hoping some progress had been made over the past two and a half months.

In late February, my daughter Ellie and our future son-in-law Nick Nist shared on the DIA Passengers Describe Safety Horror Show what they had seen at Denver Airport compared to the COVID protocols in place at Dulles International Airport in the Washington, DC area where they currently live.

Cut to May 7th, when I drove to DIA with my wife and Ellie’s twin sister Lora; We should fly to Dulles and begin an extended visit to the nation’s capital. It would be my first flight on an airplane since 2019 – and shortly after we arrived, the scenario Ellie and Nick painted earlier this year came to life before my eyes.

Customers from the southwest stood in line to board a packed flight at DIA compared to wide-open sidewalks in Dulles.EXPAND

Customers from the southwest stood in line to board a packed flight at DIA compared to wide-open sidewalks in Dulles.

Photos by Michael Roberts

Due to the seemingly endless construction work at the airport, many parts of the terminal offered less space for passengers than usual, which resulted in corridors and sidewalks being so crowded that keeping a distance between us and others ranged from difficult to impossible. Granted, most people tried to be conscientious, but there was only so much that good manners could do. In addition, the use of masks was spotty. As I walked through the airport, I only saw one person (a guy, of course) who was completely exposed, but a sizable percentage were wearing their face coverings incorrectly, showing their nose, mouth, or both.

We flew southwest, which requires people to line up within inches of each other according to their boarding order before getting on the plane. But there wasn’t much of a difference between the queue at our gate and the lines we had already passed through.

The flight itself was totally full; The days of open center seats are long gone. But while each row was full, the (funny) flight crew made sure that all passengers were masked and that no one used a bag of snack mix as an excuse to turn their face cover into a chin strap for an extended period of time.

In contrast, Dulles was a completely different world: wide open and clean, with great mask usage. In other words, everything that DIA wasn’t.

The scenario was similar when we returned to Dulles for our flight home. The DC airport had tons of space, while DIA was a mess again when we finally landed after a four hour marathon flight that was slowed down by the weather.

When my wife was wheeled to the train, she had a brief chat with the airport employee who was supposed to help her. When she asked how long the construction was likely to take, he replied, “Another three or four years. But they are working hard.” Then he invited us into a small elevator that finally had room for seven people: the three of us plus a second DIA employee who pushed another passenger into a wheelchair, and two other companions.

The decision of the second group not to wait for the next elevator seemed irresponsible – at least until we were loaded onto the train, where the rush was far worse.

Welcome to Denver.

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Michael Roberts has been writing for Westword since October 1990 and has worked as a music editor and media columnist. It currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.