Running A Con, Conference Or Festival In The Age Of A Burgeoning Pandemic!

Hey, so, I’ve got some travel upcoming here in the next handful of months — Tucson Festival of Books in March, Pike’s Peak Writer’s Conference (Colorado Springs) in April, and I’m giving the keynote address at the Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC in August. There is also, in case you haven’t heard, a probable pandemic attempting to throttle the globe right now.

Let’s talk about the pandemic part.

Now, let’s say up front that, presently, COVID-19 or SARS2-COV or SARS 2: VIRAL BOOGALOO, represents no need to run around with your head on fire. In the wise words of Douglas Adams, DON’T PANIC. We have relatively few cases here in the USA, and outside China, it remains so far slower than maybe some have expected. And presently, it would seem as if the overall illness is mild for most, excepting those over 60 or the immunocompromised.

But, let’s also be clear, those over 60, and the immunocompromised, aren’t nothing. They’re a sizable population and are (gasp) people, just the same. Further, novel coronavirus (which is not, sadly, a coronavirus that reads novels) is a fast-moving unknown. We don’t know everything about it yet. It presently seems to have a mortality rate of 2%, which is low, though considerably higher than you get with an average flu year, which is ~0.2% — but, again, those numbers could change. Ideally, it goes down, because as we understand it more and get ahead of it, it cuts fatalities. But it could also go up. (Let’s recall that the 1918 Spanish flu started out mild.) And two percent is still pretty scary! If even 20% of the global population catches it, as they did with swine flu in 2009, that’s 1.5 billion people. If two percent of them die, that’s 30 million people.

And so we’re looking around the world and you’re seeing China’s quarantine, Italy’s quarantine, Japan canceling schools for the next month, and so forth. WHO and CDC have both said it may leap containment efforts, and of course, we had our president* last night get on TV to ensure us that everything was in good hands, which is the surest sign we’re in very bad hands. (Worse is that he gave over control of the response to Mike Pence, who to be fair is very good at outbreaks, given that he helped cause one — HIV — in his own state. I’m sure this charisma-zero homophobic human thumb will gladly relegate our fates to The Lord, given he seems to deny science at every turn.) It is a fair bet that, were this to become a pandemic, we’d see some troubling pressure on our own healthcare system, which is currently stacked against those without robust insurance (like, say, writers and other creatives), and which often features hospital systems whose funding has been cut.

Anyway, point is, we don’t know how serious it is, only that it has the potential for seriousness. This doesn’t mean panicking. This isn’t The Stand. Or, ahem, cough cough, Wanderers (though I am aware of uhh some of the similarities!). But it probably ain’t great.

Am I an expert in any of this? Hardly. I just try to keep up to date on what’s up while simultaneously not fall for conspiracy theories or mis/disinformation. (Harder than you’d think in this age, sadly.)

So, now we circle back around to say —

Hey, there are a lot of conventions, conferences and festivals coming up.

For me, these are writing- or book-related, but again, I see a lot on the horizon and some that just recently passed: toys, electronics, food service, etc.

It’s convention season.

And, apparently, coronavirus season.

So, if you’re running just such a conference, lemme give you some advice:

Get ahead of this now.

Do not make us e-mail you to ask you what’s up.

This isn’t about causing panic — it’s about undercutting it. It’s about reassuring us that you have this in your mind, with plans forming.

You should let us know:

a) What if we have to drop out? Whether we have a health issue or fear one, whether we have immunocompromised or elderly folks in our life that we don’t want to infect, what-have-you, can we do that? It’d be nice to have that option. As a writer, a lot of our creative ilk don’t have the kind of money in our lives or time to get sick, much less suffer the slings and arrows of an as-yet-mysterious respiratory illness. This goes double if you’re not paying us to be there.

b) How you will ensure healthy best practices at the event? Ideally, you’ll give out hand sanitizers and not require us to share them. Perhaps have masks available, though recognize the value of such masks is debated, and are often best for those with symptoms. Will you remind attendees that shaking hands with guests is not advisable? Because it isn’t. Let’s encourage elbow bumps or waves or bowing to each other or whatever. Long-distance mime greetings!

c) WILL YOU OFFER US PROTECTIVE BUBBLES okay no not that one

d) Are you considering canceling the event? Presumably you have insurance that handles that, but again, let us know, keep us in the loop. Let us know what that looks like, and by when you would make that decision. This sounds extreme, but consider that a lot of industries have begun to cancel their industry-wide events. I can’t speak to other attendees, but I actually want to know if you’ve considered it, because it means you’re taking this seriously, and care more about your attendees than you do your bottom line, difficult though I know that would be.

e) Recognize that we’re probably anxious about this. Many of us will go to our events via two or more airports, likely international ones. We will then be at your event with hundreds to thousands of people. If we’re writers, we’re gonna be theoretically up close and personal with folks, signing their books, some want photos — and trust me, writers are already a pretty anxious lot. Our brains are carousels of crawling ants. We’re already imagining worse case scenarios. (Seriously, have you read Wanderers?) You talking to us about that before we have to talk to you about it would be very nice.

f) Recognize too we don’t want to get stuck anywhere. We have families! Pets! Extreme introversion! Note that some people who have traveled overseas have found themselves in exactly this scenario. Best case scenario, it’s a travel delay. Worst case, it’s full restriction or quarantine. Who knows how the fuck this current administration will bungle this up — they might not do anything, or they might clamp down hard when it’s not needed. Either way? We don’t wanna find out. So, what happens if it does? Are you gonna cover our hotels if we’re guests? One night? Ten? Certainly your responsibility ends somewhere, but I’d sure like you to be thinking about that.

g) Don’t just tell us, “We have no cases,” because that isn’t super-relevant right now. It might be more relevant if that’s true the day of the event — but unless your event is today, we are being warned to expect clusters to pop up all over. Will it? I dunno. I’m not Nostradamus. But this is a contagion, and contagion gonna contage. Which isn’t a word, I know, shut up. Also, you having no cases is not relevant to us traveling through airports, which do not abide by the laws of containment. More to the point, don’t make us feel like assholes for being anxious about it, or concerned, or curious.

And surely there’s more you can do — linking to the CDC/WHO, offering up good tips on hygiene and hand-washing, and the like. And I’m certainly missing some things, too. Just, again, don’t make us bug you about it. You bug us. Stay in contact. True too if you’re a workplace or a school. Don’t assume we don’t care or aren’t concerned. Be proactive.

Thanks!