Masking and meetings are not two words that attendees want to hear used in the same sentence. But once again, meeting organizers are considering—and sometimes reinstating—mask requirements to combat the highly contagious BA.5 variant.
This week’s Comic-Con convention in San Diego, which is expecting more than 135,000 visitors, is the most visible event to do so, as the city experiences a severe level of community spread. Los Angeles County has announced a mask mandate to take effect on July 29, and municipalities from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Gwinnett County, Ga., are also on board.
“The immediate concern for event planners should be the soaring COVID-19 infection rates and reduced reporting of at-home testing across the nation,” said Amanda Schleede, founder of Attend Safe. “Each new infection is a chance for the virus to mutate, and BA.5 is the current top mutation and now accounts for more than 50% of the infections in the U.S. It easily spreads and in the unvaccinated can causes worse infections.”
The reactions among meeting organizers about how to handle this current surge are mixed. “For our group and attendees, we are already using a mandatory mask policy for meetings and events,” reported Sherille Mingo, senior events manager, AFL-CIO. “This will likely continue as long as COVID-19 is a risk-factor.” Most of her organization’s attendees are over 40 and include international attendees.
“All of our clients will include what the city/state mandates, as well as what the hotel mandates,” said Carlos Sandoval, senior event experience manager, along with most of the meeting planners Prevue spoke with. Josh Adams, industry relations specialist at streamlinevents, does see some clients moving to a masking mandate as BA.5 continues to dominate. “We also anticipate some clients will return to virtual meetings, depending on their own internal health and safety policies.”
Does he expect some pushback from attendees? “We would imagine so,” Adams said, “but we also feel that a large percentage of attendees would comply.”
Dave Stevens, principal, Event Marketing Authority, added that event organizers need to keep the current COVID conditions in mind by taking advantage of outdoor spaces and ventilation, and requiring vaccines and testing.