It would seem airports have become the scourge of the Earth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Typically bustling with busy travelers, these days they’re practically barren, as many see them as a hot spot to catch the deadly virus.
After all, if there has been one consistent message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with local governments, it’s that traveling increases the chance of catching and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19.
Portland International Airport hasn’t been spared from the drop in business. According to the most recent data from the Port of Portland, the airport saw only 475,672 passengers during November 2020 — down 69 percent from the previous year, though more people were expected to travel for the holidays.
Nonetheless, airport employees like Agustina Mata Velazquez are trying to keep them clean.
Mata Velazquez is one of about 25 to 30 percent of employees who work at Portland International Airport but live in Southwest Washington. She works overnight shifts and is considered a stainless-steel specialist, keeping all the escalators, walkways and rails clean using powerful sanitizer, according to manager Monica Martinez.
“We constantly clean touch points throughout the day with a hospital-grade disinfectant,” Martinez said. Martinez and Mata Velazquez are employed by Relay Resources, a contractor that specializes in helping people with barriers connect with jobs.
Mata Velazquez, 43, immigrated to the United States from Mexico’s troubled Michoacan region in 1995 and is a lawful permanent resident. English is her second language. She spoke through a translator — Martinez — for a recent phone interview.
“I come from a town where it’s known for drug cartels. It was dangerous, there were no jobs,” Mata Velazquez said, avoiding specifics for safety reasons. “(Recently) my whole family had to move out of the town because of the cartel. They get extorted. There’s a lot of violence and it’s related to the drug cartels.”
Though she has lived in the United States for 22 years, she has worked at the airport for a little over a year, opting for the night shift — between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. — so she has time to take care of her children.
“I like the overnight shift because it works with my schedule and my six kids,” Mata Velazquez said. “Before COVID-19, I could take them to school and then go to sleep. That way, I didn’t have to take them to a babysitter.”
Working nights has another benefit during the pandemic: even fewer people in the airport than during the day. But Mata Velazquez continues to take precautions to not infect her family by bringing it home from work.
“I have a daughter who has a low immune system. I’m afraid to get COVID and give it to my daughter, so I moved her from my home to another relative’s home,” she said. When Mata Velazquez gets home from work, she separates her clothes for washing and disinfecting.
COVID-19’s potential impact on her daughter isn’t Mata Velazquez’s only worry.
According to an April article in The Guardian, the pandemic was expected to exacerbate cartel violence in places like Michoacan as resources worldwide are strained.
The last time she traveled to see her family in Mexico was in February, right before the pandemic, before her family was forced to move to a different town in Mexico.
“(The February trip was) important because I hadn’t seen them in a while — and in my hometown, because of the violence, sometimes visitors are not allowed,” Mata Velazquez said.
Like many others, though, she is just hoping for an end to the pandemic.
“I hope COVID is gone soon, so I can work more peacefully,” she said.