'We're not feeling very safe': Employees, passengers question COVID-19 screening at Pearson

There are questions at Toronto's Pearson International Airport about whether the screening process for new arrivals is thorough enough amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Airport added 1 question to electronic kiosks for all international travellers

A customer speaks with Cyndy Poole at the out-of-town ground transportation desk at Pearson International Airport's Terminal 3. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Workers and passengers at Toronto's Pearson International Airport are questioning whether the screening process for new arrivals is thorough enough amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Cyndy Poole, who works at the out-of-town ground transportation desk near the international arrivals gate at Terminal 3, says she interacts with many passengers and hears their complaints and questions. 

"We're getting people here that tell us that they weren't properly screened when they come in and we have people coming up to us and [we're] finding out they're not feeling well," said Poole.

"We're sitting here at ground zero, you might want to call it, but we're not feeling very safe and a little worried about [how] things are supposed to be," she added.

 "It's scary. It's the unknown that people are afraid of."

Cyndy Poole, who works at the ground transportation desk at Pearson International Airport's Terminal 3 in Toronto, says she interacts with many passengers who question the screening process at the airport. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

Canada's chief public health officer is now discouraging all non-essential travel outside the country, but those who continue to travel may face restrictions.

On Friday, federal Minister of Transport Marc Garneau said the government is planning to restrict the number of airports in Canada that will accept international flights to consolidate COVID-19 screening.

As of late Friday afternoon, those airports have not been announced.

CBC News spoke with several passengers at Pearson who described the screening as minimal. 

'Just like any other time'

Parker Maris of Edson, Alberta, who arrived in Toronto on Thursday, says he was surprised at what he describes as a lax screening process — especially given that he's been in Italy — the European country hardest hit by COVID-19 — within the last week.

"We thought for sure they would ask us ... 'Where have you been, what have you been doing?' … a little bit more intensive questions, or at least checking if we were sick or not," Maris told CBC News.

Maris, a student at the University of British Columbia, is studying abroad this semester along with his girlfriend in Rome. They decided to leave for Malta when the outbreak hit. 

"We just went because things started to get a little bit more tight. People were worried, so we went," Maris said.

As the outbreak escalated and parts of Italy were put under lockdown, Maris says he and his partner decided to leave Malta for London, England. The pair also had a stop in Turkey.

He says Pearson's screening process is much less intensive than those other airports. 

"We didn't notice anybody scanning for heat or anything, which they seem to do at every other airport we were at, so we were really surprised how limited it was," he said.

Parker Maris, a University of British Columbia student who was studying in Rome, says he was surprised at what he described as a lax passenger screening process at Pearson International Airport. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

The 24-year-old says arriving at Pearson was "just like any other time you get off a plane," with the exception of an extra question to answer at the electronic kiosk.

Maris had to say whether he had been to Italy, Iran, or China within the last 14 days, but there were no questions about where he'd been in Italy.

Then he got to a customs agent where he says he was asked if he was sick, to which he replied, "no."

That was it as far as questioning, he says.

Maris says, however, that he was handed a form to complete with his contact information before leaving customs.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) told CBC News that they will not be able to comment on the individual interaction Maris had. 

In terms of screening processes at the border, CBSA said their personnel are directed by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). 

"PHAC is responsible for advising the CBSA of any required enhanced measures to be implemented at the Canadian border to help prevent the introduction and spread of serious infectious diseases into Canada," the agency said in an emailed statement Friday. 

Additional signage and cleaning 

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which oversees the management of Pearson's facilities — and various operations, such as retail, transportation services, and food and beverages — told CBC News Friday that the safety and security of their passengers and employees is their top priority. 

In an emailed statement, the GTAA said it is continuing to work in close collaboration with PHAC and the CBSA to ensure that all proper measures are taken for passengers and employees.

In response to the outbreak, the GTAA says it has installed extra hand sanitizer stations in arrival areas and is cleaning them more frequently. Kiosks, bathrooms and high-traffic areas are being regularly disinfected.

It's also adding additional cleaning staff hours.

All internal travellers will notice signage in both French and English, asking them to alert a border services officer if they have any flu-like symptoms, the GTAA's website says.

It also says banners and information booths with staff from PHAC are in place.

And when it comes to staff communication, the GTAA says, "regular employee updates are sent through our internal communications channels to ensure that Toronto Pearson employees have the information and the resources they require."

Meantime, Poole says her employer has provided masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. 

But she's looking for transparency from the GTAA airport on how it's dealing with passengers amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

"We'd like the truth, for one thing. Like, what is really going on in the screening process — and that is really a big concern I would say for us, because anybody can come up here," she said. 

"They could have a common cold or they could have a virus, the coronavirus. We don't know these things. And we're here smiling and trying to weather this as best we can."


Laura Clementson is a producer for CBC's The National. She can be reached at Follow Laura on Twitter @LauraClementson.