I went to a conference and nobody spread COVID
Tuesday, June 21, 2022
Tagged: covid-19, masks, plague, conferences
People are not all on the same page about COVID planning. I don't just mean vax-deniers. My social circles -- the good and sensible people reading this post -- range from "I am planning in-person social events" to "in-person social events are morally indefensible".
Nor does this boil down to everyone deciding their own risk tolerance. Every person does decide their own risk tolerance, but it's a collective risk and it has to be managed collectively. By people with different goals and different levels of vulnerability. This is not easy! "Minimize all risk" and "minimize risk involved in living my life" aren't even two ends of a spectrum. They're two vectors in a branchy mess of decisions.
How does this apply to conferences? We haven't decided. It's not a minor question. We're now seeing events relax their COVID policies at the last minute, and it's hard not to read that as a calculated attempt to sucker people in. On the flip side, PAX East killed someone. Of my coworkers who went to GDC this year, nearly all of them caught something (not all tested positive for COVID but there were gobs of fevers and sore throats). It scared me good.
Then again, I've been going into grocery stores regularly through the whole pandemic, wearing a cloth -- not N95 -- mask. So who am I to sneer?
No sneering here. A couple of weeks ago I hit my introvert wall: I attended a conference in Montreal. This was Scintillation, a tiny sci-fi convention. I went to the first Scintillation in 2018 and really enjoyed it. I missed 2019; 2020 and 2021 were cancelled; this year the organizers and regulars collectively said "Dammit we're doing this." Reader, I did it. Air travel and all. I had a great time. (I took part in a couple of panel discussions about different authors.)
And: nobody got sick. That we can tell! It's impossible to be certain about these things. One person reported a marginally positive antigen test two days after the conference, but they followed up with a PCR and that was negative. Another person felt like crap a week later, but the first test is negative, and the timing doesn't really fit. Our conclusion is that, by diligence or luck, no COVID was spread at the con.
This post is neither a brag nor a confession. Rather, I want to explain the event policies that kept the risks low and, ultimately, were successful at keeping people safe.
- This was a small event. I think attendance was about 75 people. Everybody fit in one function room.
- Proof of vaccination was required to pick up your badge.
- Indoor masking was required, and we were serious about it. If you were in the hotel, aside from your own hotel room, you wore a mask. (Obviously we couldn't enforce this for other hotel guests but we were the only occupants of the function-room floor.) If you wanted to drink water, you went to the con suite and lowered your mask long enough to take a swallow.
- The con had some rapid tests available at the check-in desk.
- Someone made a couple of box-fan air filters for the event. One ran in the function room, one in the con suite. I hadn't heard of this project but it gets good reviews from professionals.
- Indoor dining was not banned, but for people who wanted to avoid it, the conference posted a list of restaurants which would deliver to your hotel room.
- A couple of outdoor gatherings (picnics) were scheduled; these were unmasked.
For my own part:
- I stayed away from social gatherings, even small ones, for several days before the event.
- I got a PCR test three days before the event. (This turned out to be a waste, because the test web site was down and I didn't see the result until the day I got home! But it was negative after all.)
- I wore an N95 mask while in the conference space, and also for all air travel (airports and airplanes). I switched to a cloth mask when wandering around Montreal museums and shops.
- I got my second vaccine booster two weeks before the event, so as to (hopefully) be at max immunity.
- I did a couple of rapid tests in my hotel room during the event.
- I got most meals take-out. (Mmm, bao.) I ate in restaurants a few times, but I tried to pick uncrowded restaurants, and I ate either alone or with one other person at the table.
- I yukked it up without a mask at the outdoor picnics.
- I kept doing rapid tests for the week after the event. And stayed away from social gatherings, well, at least until Thursday.
So, as you see, we were pretty careful. But we could have been more careful in some ways. But this is what we did.
The intangible factor was that the conference organizers cared about safety and were willing to make firm rules. We had discussions in advance about how masking would work, how hydration would work, how everything would work. What were the accessibility needs? (With 75 people registered and no at-the-door entry, this was a well-defined list.) Would we bring back the singing social events from the first two Scintillations? (No way.) And so on. Everybody was on board with the situation before they arrived. We all knew the people in charge were prepared to say "Mask up or get out," and because of that, they never had to.
I can't prove these precautions will protect everybody. I don't know how to estimate the odds. (If we were lucky enough to have zero contagious people show up, then we wouldn't know how well the masks and filters worked!) But this is, I would say, a minimum level of diligence for events in the 100-person range.
Masks suck, and everybody hates 'em, and this is where we are.
I can't even think about events in the 10000-person range. GDC and PAX still scare me, and will continue to scare me until the vaccine situation changes a lot.
I hope this information is useful.