While COVID-19 cases continue to decline, and states and localities start dropping mask and vaccine mandates it's easy to get our hopes up for a return to "normal." But we've seen this "movie" and now know how quickly things can spike back up to levels impacting public health. In reality, we don't know what normal really is. For the near future, we should expect to see many pandemic precautions remain in place in some form for in-person events for the foreseeable future. This includes sanitization, spacing, masks, and vaccine mandates.
Experience has shown us that careful planning can lead to safe events. The first known omicron case in the U.S. was found in a person that had attended a 53,000-person anime convention in New York. The initial fear was that the event would reveal itself to be a super spreader. The reality showed that was not the case. A CDC study credited good air filtration, widespread vaccination and indoor masking. Events should look to scale these types of efforts to keep attendees healthy even in less contagious environments.
Availability of hand sanitizers and well-spaced set-ups for food are relatively low levels of effort but make a real impact on people's comfort in big groups. Our November 2021 survey found respondents citing vaccination requirements, socially distanced seating, hand sanitizer stations, and masks as things that make them comfortable attending an in-person event. While events may not require testing, having tests available for people to take before leaving a multi-day event could be a great service to provide attendees - more useful than any swag bag.
Even with labor shortages, event organizers need to take a look at the staff required to support today's events. For large events, public health experts should be a part of the planning team (even if it is just in a consulting capacity) as a resource for making sense of guidelines, infection numbers, and other health considerations. Smaller events may want to consider tapping into the Department of Health local to the event site for a quick gut check on plans. Events may need to have additional security personnel to help enforce mask and vaccine mandates.
While it may seem easy to hire temporary workers to do the very manual task of checking vaccine cards, it may be more effective to have full-time staff take on these roles. HIMSS found that temporary staff did not understand or feel as much ownership in the importance of vaccine verification. People who are attached to the organization better understand the need for and impact of the policies.
Vaccine mandates are widely accepted in the federal market. Our survey found that 81% of respondents would attend an event with vaccine requirements. Looking at events listed on GovEvents taking place between January and June of 2022 we found 70 that required proof of vaccination. Events should provide multiple ways for people to show vaccination status. Online portals allow vaccination cards to be uploaded and verified in advance of the event, reducing the paperwork that needs to be done at registration. There are a number of apps available that help with the upload and verification of vaccination documents.
Some people will not be comfortable sharing this data digitally. For those, on-site verification needs to be offered and fully staffed to avoid lines and delays.
Underlying all of this is the need for communication. Event organizers must communicate expectations of attendees and their own protocols early and often. This communication must be transparent with acknowledgement that circumstances can change, impacting the rules around masking, vaccines, and more.
In-person events are back to becoming the norm even if the routines at those events may not feel exactly "normal." In 2021, GovEvents had 47 in-person events posted on the site between January and June. This year, so far there are 309 scheduled in the same time period. We'll continue to keep a pulse on what event organizers and attendees are expecting and experiencing when it comes to in-person events, relaying what the latest trends are here on the blog.