Now that the economy is slowly beginning to reopen in some states, event creators are tasked with a unique, precarious mission: to decide when to start holding in-person events again, and hold them safely when the time comes. This may sound fairly straightforward: We all know that holding in-person events during a pandemic comes with inherent safety risks. And when it comes to the transmission and potential deadliness of the coronavirus, we should virtually be experts by now. The media certainly hasn’t spared us a detail over the last several months.
But taking a cavalier, one-size-fits-all approach to reopening the event world would be a grave mistake. Resuming scheduling in-person events is vital to the survival of the economy- and even more vital to the event planning industry. But safety and prevention during a pandemic is a complex issue with many serious considerations. We want you to enjoy the most successful post-quarantine event possible, and that requires putting safety first. We’re breaking it all down for you today.
This may sound obvious, but there is no such thing as a risk-free in-person event during a pandemic. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, the first step to holding the safest event possible is to assess the risk for your event specifically. But first, let’s take a moment to briefly review the CDC’s basic guiding principles regarding risk assessment. These have been recently modified and are the most up-to-date available.
The lowest risk is presented by exclusively virtual events and activities.
More risk is posed by small, outdoor, in-person gatherings in which people wear CDC/WHO-recommended face coverings, remain at least 6 ft. apart, live and work in the same local area, and refrain from sharing local objects.
Higher risk is associated with medium-sized gatherings in which people maintain 6 ft. of distance between each other at all times, and people come from outside the local area.
The highest risk is associated with large in-person gatherings (50 guests or more) where individuals do not necessarily remain 6 feet apart, and attendees are traveling from outside the local area.
You need to be thinking about COVID-19 prevalence from two key perspectives. It goes without saying that the prevalence of COVID-19 varies not just state to state, but county to county. So know the exact number of cases reported on a daily basis in your area, and be vigilant about watching those numbers as your event approaches. If people are traveling from outside the local area, understand that this poses a greater, more unpredictable risk- and take the utmost safety precautions to prevent transmission onsite.
Consider the conditions at your event. For example, what is your event capacity? In some states, events of up to 100 people are allowed beginning in July. With any size group, your event space should be able to be modified to adhere to social distancing rules, which are essentially still in place. The objective is to prevent attendees and staff coming within six feet of each other unless it’s absolutely unavoidable.
When assessing who will be at your event, don’t just estimate the amount of guests expected. You should also determine how high-risk your attendees are. Ask yourself:
Are you expecting 50 guests or more? This number of attendees poses the highest risk.
Are your attendees 65 or over/ immunocompromised?
How likely are your guests to wear masks and strictly adhere to your social distancing guidelines?
Is your event being held indoors? (If so, this poses a higher risk, and requires you to take steps to reduce density, diligently screen guests, and implement high-standard sanitizing methods).
How likely are they to wear masks and adhere strictly to social distancing measures in place? To be clear, the CDC recommends that CDC/WHO-approved face coverings be worn by event staff and attendees at all times. Following this advice is the safest way to host an event during a pandemic. We don’t recommend holding an event without requiring all guests and attendees to weak CDC/WHO-recommended face masks.
But in the interest of public health safety at events, we think it’s important to include some guidelines for those who decide to give their attendees the option to decide whether to wear face masks. Our advice? Do your research, and do it thoroughly. Get to know the demographics attending your event and how likely they are to follow the social distancing protocol in public or at events, including wearing face masks.
Also consider purchasing enough CDC/WHO-approved masks for all staff and attendees. (Or in the interest of saving money, which is a real concern right now, require staff members to wear their own and provide masks for attendees only). Assign your event staff to enforce the requirement that guests wear appropriate face coverings. For good measure, you can also require guests to certify their compliance via formal documentation. This can be done in person or prior to your event through electronic signatures to save printing costs.
There is no specific formula to determine this one, but observing age and typical behaviors in the city or region where your event is taking place can be helpful. If you have questions- and you should- do some additional research. When you consistently research the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the area leading up to your event, seek out other information as well. What demographics populate the area, and how strictly are they following social distancing measures? Sometimes there are surveys, think pieces, and even general statistics available online. For statewide information, go to Unacast and find out how scientists score your state’s behavior and the impact on public health and safety.
Special Considerations for Cloth Coverings:
There are a few times when cloth coverings should not be worn, and these guidelines must be adhered to at all times. Cloth coverings should never be worn on:
Babies or children under 2 years old
Anyone who has difficulty breathing
Unconscious or incapacitated individuals; anyone who is unable to remove the cloth covering without assistance
Quick reminder: Communication is key, so make sure your staff has a clear understanding of all safety guidelines in place, including these.
Modifying Your Event Space
The good news: Event design has become increasingly sophisticated, and event creators are some of the most creative people you’ll meet. Resourcefulness really goes a long way. Your first priority should be modifying every area of your event space to enforce social distancing rules. That means all attendees should be able to be within six feet apart, even when they’re socializing. We know- this is kind of a damper on, for example, a dance floor. Obviously, some events are easier to hold than others right now, and we empathize completely with those event creators who are worried about compromising quality to prioritize safety.
If you do have a dance floor, or your event involves other forms of physical activity, consider spacing people 6 ft. apart and having “shifts” to reduce density. Or you can turn the dancing or performing into a contest in which it makes sense for people to be 6 ft. apart. It all depends on the nature of your event. In some upcoming articles, we’ll explore creative ways to be safe at different types of events. Expect these in the very near future!
Believe it or not, there are authentic ways to reduce density at your event by scheduling specific activities at different times. For one example, breakout sessions constitute one of the hottest trends in the industry right now- and they also happen to accommodate social distancing guidelines more easily than many other event designs.
Basically, breakout sessions are smaller sessions within a larger group. They tend to focus on specific aspects of your general topic. Sometimes more than one breakout session occurs at a time, and attendees split up to pursue different interests. In smaller spaces with smaller groups, breakout sessions may happen in the same space at different times. Normally, breakout sessions provide a way to personalize the attendee experience by giving guests an opportunity to explore specific topics according to their interest. But incidentally, breakout sessions also minimize the amount of people in the same room at the same time. Just try to secure a space in which guests can maintain a safe distance between one another during these small sessions.
You may also minimize crowds by timing activities based on other factors, such as age (which could reduce the risk of exposure in several key ways). If possible, assign a general outdoor area where people congregate and socialize while waiting their turn to participate in specific activities. Or, depending on the nature of your event, simply set up different times for various groups to arrive and attend your event.
Setting Up Adequate Screening Measures
Screening means either assigning medical personnel to evaluate attendees at the point of entry, or doing this yourself. What does the screening process entail? Each attendee should be asked if they’re experiencing symptoms that could be associated with COVID-19 (i.e., coughing or chest congestion, fever, sore throat, flu-like symptoms, ect.). At this point in the screening process, all attendees- including those without any symptoms- should have their temperature taken.
When it comes to attendees who are experiencing symptoms, it’s up to you to determine level of risk. Because COVID-19 symptoms can be mimicked by many other conditions, such as asthma or the common cold, you may decide to have these attendees undergo further screening with onsite medical professionals. However, the symptoms of COVID-19- and the range and intensity of them- vary from person to person. For example, one infected person many only feel slightly fatigued and experience some body aches. Others may experience typical cold or flu symptoms with moderate severity. Still others become ill enough to develop pneumonia and require ventilation to stay alive. As we all know, the disease can also be fatal, and symptoms can progress from mild to life-threatening within hours.
If possible, hold screening at several intervals during your event. This is easier if you’ve hired medical personnel to perform them. We’re not trying to scare you out of holding your very first event since states began to slowly reopen. To the contrary, we know the importance of reopening and finding a “new normal” that allows life- including events- to resume. If now is the right time for you to hold your first post-quarantine event, our goal is to help you do so in the safest way possible for you and your attendees.
We’re not saying to expect the worst, but it’s absolutely essential to be prepared for it! Assume that there’s a possibility guests will exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 and require emergency or urgent intervention at your event. Create a thorough plan to respond to medical or other threats and dangers, such as weather emergencies, fire, or security threats. Hire medical personnel to create a first aid station to aid and assess sick or injured attendees.
We highly recommend having a refund policy in place for attendees who are unable to attend the event because they are displaying symptoms. Not only is this a way to show appreciation for their decision to put public health safety first, but it encourages more people to cancel if they’re showing symptoms. (The fact is, we all know individuals who would risk the safety of others by attending an event to avoid wasting money they invested in tickets).
If they can’t be there in person for health or other reasons, you may also want to provide a way for guests to participate remotely. An authentic virtual option to be part of your event can save people from missing out, and FOMO is high at a time like this. Make it easy for remote guests to virtually navigate your venue online, participate in sessions and surveys, and chat with other guests via chat and video.
Promoting Healthy Behaviors, Respiratory Etiquette, and Adequate Handwashing
Firstly, set the precedent by requiring employees to wash their hands frequently. All staff members should be handwashing before, during, and after coming into direct physical contact with attendees or one another. (For example, handwashing should be done after touching tickets, cleaning staff or attendee areas, using the restroom, ect.).
All staff and attendees should be instructed to wash with soap and water for at least 30 seconds. Staff should be as vigilant as possible about monitoring these behaviors. Widespread signage that depicts handwashing guidelines should be highly visible throughout the event space. You may also want to broadcast regular announcements and reminders regarding adequate hygiene throughout the event. Although it may seem like a given, trust us- it’s in your best interest to encourage attendees to cover all coughs and sneezes, and then promptly wash or sanitize their hands. All tissues should be thrown out immediately after use.
When in doubt, it’s easy to download hygiene and transmission reduction guidelines from the CDC’s website. Simply print these guidelines and make them highly visible throughout your event space.
An extra tidbit of advice that can save lives? Don’t wait until the day of your event to talk about pandemic safety at in-person events. We recommend having an ongoing discussion about safety precautions with attendees in the weeks prior to your event. Doing so engages attendees in a more personal discussion, which tends to leave a greater impression than the formal instructions they’ll receive at your event.
Of course we’re not suggesting skipping out on enforcing precautions clearly and succinctly on the day of your event. We’re just suggesting that personal discussions with attendees are relationship-building; they encourage trust, understanding, and open communication. All of those things take on new importance during a pandemic. The more attendees talk- to you and each other on event promotion forums and social media- the more they learn.
Soap and water are not always readily available, and you can’t expect your attendees to run to the bathroom whenever they incidentally come into contact with a surface. That’s why 60% alcohol sanitizer should be available throughout the event space. You can also provide mini sanitizer bottles at the door, but this can be costly, and people are more likely to tuck it away in their purses or elsewhere than carry it on their person. Sanitizing stations dispersed throughout the event space are convenient for spontaneous use- and reassuring to understandably germ-conscious attendees.