Most states lifted COVID-19 restrictions just in time for Memorial Day weekend, making this the first holiday that felt semi-normal in over a year. Understandably, people are looking forward to a summer filled with maskless fun- and making up for what was missed last summer while we were mostly confined to our homes. While virtual events kept the world connected and eased the sense of isolation, nothing takes the place of actually being out in the world. Being free to be physically close to family and friends is a gift many will not take for granted in 2021. And in large part, we can thank the vaccine for it.
Amidst all of the euphoric celebrations, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the virus is still a clear and present danger. We don’t mean this in a fear-mongering way; we’re all about embracing the future, and we’re as excited as you probably are to get back to semi-normal! But event creators have a special role in reopening. Essentially pioneers in the return to live events, organizers have a great responsibility to reopen as safely as possible. After all, our collective goal is to reopen society in a way that is sustainable and leads the industry on a path toward recovery. So let’s talk about some things to consider when hosting live events after more than a year of quarantining.
Vaccine Mandates: Fact or Fiction?
Now more than ever, it’s important to be prepared. Work with venue owners, vendors, and your whole event team to create a cohesive safety protocol. This is especially vital as states lift mask restrictions, making it difficult to hold an event that requires masks. You’ll need to go the extra mile to protect vulnerable attendees, which requires careful consideration. A lot of this comes down to event design, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Recently, there’s been a lot of controversy over whether it’s ethical (or even legal) for businesses to mandate proof of vaccination. According to attorney Joshua Grimes of Grimes Law Offices, LLC, the practice is totally legal. Understandably, questions have been raised as to whether requiring vaccination (or a negative COVID test) upon entry violates HIPAA laws. But Grimes says these laws don’t specifically name vaccination as sensitive, protected information.
However, if you’re going to require attendees to be vaccinated, data-privacy regulation poses a potential issue. Generally speaking, health information falls under the umbrella of personal data. So if you do choose to still mandate proof of vaccination, it should be protected with a disclosure. This disclosure agreement should state that you’re collecting health information as well as how you are going to use it.
But even when done lawfully, there are potential ethical problems with requiring vaccines. Ethics and law are too separate things, but the idea of having to share health information at an event makes a lot of people feel as if their privacy is being violated. Remember, the vaccination issue is a complex one. While it appears to be very effective, and vaccination is a public health issue, it’s also a personal decision. Some people have raised concerns that it hasn’t been tested for long enough to rule out future complications that are still unknown. People have experienced adverse reactions, and many unvaccinated individuals have existing health concerns. They may be worried about how the vaccine will impact their overall health and issues they are already dealing with. As an event creator, it’s important to address the issue with empathy and sensitivity to all of your attendees, who may have mixed feelings about mandates and vaccines.
You also have to consider the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some people’s pre-existing conditions may put them at risk for serious complications from the vaccine. In those cases, the risk has been deemed greater than the benefit, and their healthcare providers may recommend against getting it. If you are going to mandate vaccination, be sure to make reasonable accommodations for these people. They are probably already experiencing anxiety about reopening and attending events. So you’ll want to make them feel just as welcome as your other guests and put them at ease.
Depending on your location and who your attendees are, they will have different feelings, and that’s okay. Doing your best to make your attendees happy and keep them safe can be a tricky balance. If you feel like mandating proof of vaccination will upset a lot of your attendees, you may not want to risk that. So let’s get into some other ways to reopen as safely as possible.
Slow Progress > No Progress
While it can be tempting to go all in and hold a blow-out event that delivers the experience your attendees have been missing, it’s probably not your best bet. In order to control the spread of COVID-19 and keep your reopening plan on track, try smaller experiences that still allow for social distancing. Choose a venue with space that accommodates breakout sessions and social distancing, and include venue owners in your protocol. Of course, social distancing is unrealistic for some larger-scale events. Event design, technology, and effective messaging can all help make bigger events safer.
Once you’ve established a reopening protocol, keep everyone in the loop. Having a cohesive strategy is the best way to ensure a safe, successful event. Is your venue adhering to its own consistent safety and cleaning protocol? (The answer should be a resounding yes). You and your venue are responsible for creating a contingency plan in case anyone falls ill with COVID-19 symptoms at your event.
Managing space is necessary for starting slow and social distancing. It’s not uncommon for smaller events to be held in larger spaces that normally accommodate 200 or more people. Interactive floor plans and room diagramming technology allow you to see your event through the attendee’s eyes. From this perspective, you might notice something you would have otherwise missed. For example, if your breakout session room is right across from the bathroom, your attendees might have to fight crowds to get into sessions. This could pose a greater risk of transmission, so you might want to rethink where you’re holding the most important meetings. Getting an idea of the flow of your space is paramount to hosting a great comeback event.
Speaking of technology, it can go a long way toward making events safer as restrictions lift. Let’s talk a little bit about how mobile apps work to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.
How Technology Can Make Events Safer
Mobile app technology provides no-touch methods of checking in or out and interacting throughout events. These apps often work with wristbands and badges to help guests check in without contact. They work on and offline, and get bonus points for making the check-in process quicker and smoother. Payment also becomes contactless with mobile apps that utilize this technology.
How do these wristbands and smart badges work? Well, they use near-field communication that allows for secure information exchange without contact. Because they allow for contactless information exchange, they can even replace business cards, which further reduces the risk of spreading germs.
Spread the Message (Not the Virus)
Okay, this might seem like an obvious one, and we’ve certainly talked about it in previous articles. Not to beat a dead horse, but in our post-apocalyptic world, signage, broadcasting, and communicating are all necessary. This is especially true at large events! Place signs reminding guests of your safety protocol where they are most visible. Put them in each heavily populated area, and make sure guests can see them from everywhere in the room. It’s also important to put them near rest rooms, at entrances and exits, bars, and food service areas. If you can swing it, use custom napkins or other food products to get your message across.
We don’t mean to imply you should be obnoxious and make attendees feel apprehensive at every turn. Putting a positive spin on your messaging can help lighten the mood and prioritize safety. For example, use signage to convey that you want to make sure guests are having an enjoyable experience. Follow it up with a number, email, or social media page they can contact if they have any questions, concerns, or problems to report.
It’s important to make sure your communications are disability-inclusive. Including Braille on signage, broadcasting messages throughout the event, and making your website/social media content screen reader-friendly are all helpful. Remember, people who are deaf or have limited hearing may need written materials, assistive listening devices, captions, or sign language to digest messages.
Also: Having an open dialogue about reopening starts before your event, and continues afterward! It’s natural for your attendees to have questions and concerns regarding safety when attending an in-person event after a year of staying home. Communicate your reopening protocol, including what you are doing to keep guests safe, on social media and your website. Do this weeks prior to your event; this way, attendees have time to communicate their thoughts and concerns, and get their questions answered before the big day.
Getting back to inclusive messaging, that goes for content, too. Keep messaging brief and to the point, and use bold lettering that contrasts the background of your page. You should also provide meaningful alt text for those with visual limitations. Not everyone can interpret images, and make links as descriptive as possible while being brief. Remember, some people rely on screen readers. Screen readers need to be able to communicate where the links will take attendees with visual limitations.
Post-event, be sure to check in with your attendees via social media and surveys that address their experience. What did you do right and what can you improve? The only way to know the answers to those important questions is to ask them.
Returning to in-person events isn’t going to be an easy or overnight process. But thanks to an accessible vaccine and good practices you can apply, the future of events is looking brighter than it has in years. We can do this!