COVID-19 has upended the events industry, affecting everything from annual corporate conferences to trade shows and even simple team meetings. Over the past several months, hundreds of events have been canceled, postponed, or turned into virtual events. The question on everyone’s minds is: When is it safe for in-person events to return?
Deciding when to start holding events again is an extremely tough call to make. No company wants to hold an event that later turns out to be a superspreader, responsible for transmitting infection. How can you decide when it’s safe to hold an event again? What factors should you consider in making that decision?
What Does the CDC Say About Events and Gatherings?
COVID-19 spreads mainly via droplets released when speaking, sneezing, and coughing. It’s also spread by touch. This means that the most important ways to prevent the spread of the virus are with personal hygiene and personal protection equipment. It also means that the most high-risk events are in-person events, where it’s hard for people to spread out and avoid contact with one another. The risk is higher when people travel to the event from outside the local area.
For all these reasons, trade shows and other large events can present a high level of risk. So it’s vital that event organizers think carefully about what kind of event to hold and what they can do to reduce transmission risks.
The CDC has some guiding principles that are important to think about when planning an event. They include:
The more people any single person interacts with at an event, the bigger the risk that COVID will spread at the event. This means that smaller events pose less risk. It also means that limiting interpersonal interactions can help reduce risk too. For instance, if an event normally includes networking and social events, eliminating those may help make an event safer.
The higher the level of community transmission is in a particular area, the higher the risk of the coronavirus spreading at an event held there. So it may be safe to hold a local event in a state with a lower level of community transmission. However, if your event is likely to draw attendees from all over the country, the rate of local transmission is less relevant.
The size of an event should be determined based on a number of sources, including federal, state, and local safety laws. Consult multiple sources when you’re deciding whether it’s safe to hold an event. And make sure that your event meets any and all safety guidelines that are applicable in your location.
How Do Local Health Regulations Come Into Play?
In planning any event, it’s important to understand the local safety laws and protocols, but never have they been more top of mind than right now and in the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Local health regulations and recommendations for COVID-19 are based on reducing the risk of local transmission. In areas where local transmission is higher, it’s vital to pay attention to personal protective measures that help keep everyone safe. That doesn’t mean those measures aren’t important in lower-risk areas, but it does mean they’re particularly important in places where the COVID risk is higher.
Here are some resources with information about area-specific COVID-related regulations:
- State and territorial health department websites
- State health departments
- Resources for tribal communities
Risk Mitigation: Making Your Event as Safe as It Can Be
Because COVID-19 is highly contagious, has a long incubation time, and can cause asymptomatic infections, it’s impossible to completely eliminate the risk of transmission. Therefore, any physical event will have a certain level of risk involved—for now. Making your event safe for people to attend is all about being aware of where the risks are and doing whatever’s necessary to manage those risks.
This is important for another reason too: One of the biggest barriers to successful live events in the future may be that some people won’t feel comfortable attending. Both to keep people safe and to help people feel safe, it is important to follow all public health recommendations and also let attendees know that you’re doing so.
Some ways to help manage risk might include:
- Hire a bigger venue than you’d ordinarily need, to allow plenty of room for safe social distancing. If possible, consider holding the event outdoors.
- Design an event layout that helps people enjoy their experiences safely; for example, provide socially distanced seating for speaking events and presentations.
- Help people stay distanced by marking off safe distances; for instance, mark off safe queueing distances wherever lines are likely to form.
- Create PPE stations where people can get masks and sanitizer, as needed.
- Recommend that attendees quarantine before and after attending your event. You can’t control whether people do this, of course, but recommending this practice will at least encourage people to think about limiting their contact with others before and after they attend.
- Rely on the advancements in tech to create as contactless an event as possible.
- Hold a hybrid event that allows people to participate without having to physically be in the event venue. Livestreaming presentations and other content so people can watch from home or work is a great starting point. Learn more about hybrid events here.
Balancing ROI and Safety: Live Versus Virtual Events
Holding a hybrid event can be a good way to benefit from holding a live event, while providing another way to attend to those who prefer to stay at home. Another option is to fully pivot away from in-person events and make your next event a virtual one.
This can be a tough choice to make. You’re balancing not just safety considerations, but also the cost of holding the event and the ROI from a live event versus a virtual one. The good news is, virtual events are typically cheaper to hold and have some real advantages. (Learn more about the pros and cons here.) If you conduct a risk assessment and find that a physical event feels too risky, it’s worthwhile to consider a virtual event instead. For instance, if you’re considering an event in a state where community transmission is still high, it may be better to either put your plans on hold or consider a virtual event instead.
There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Answer
The question of when it’s safe for events to return isn’t easy to answer. It’s more accurate to take each event on a case-by-case basis, as the question of safety depends, in large part, on where the event is located, how large it is, and where it’s held. More importantly, it depends on what you’re able to do, as the event host, to help keep attendees, exhibitors, and event staff safe.