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!


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.


20 responses to “Running A Con, Conference Or Festival In The Age Of A Burgeoning Pandemic!”

  1. The wife and I are heading to Portland, OR in May for the Medical Librarian Association’s annual shindig. I guarantee this will be a hot topic of discussion by the attendees.

  2. Thank you, Chuck! I wish all the pro- and an- nouncements on the Corona virus were this levelheaded. Good luck with the coming con season!

  3. I’ve been having all of these thoughts and even though I’m not going to Stokercon this year, there are other events including our local Ad Astra in Toronto. I hope all the convention runners read this and make updated announcements on their websites about their protocol. Thank you for writing this.

  4. I’m one of those in the endangered category. I have no desire to die at the hands of a virus. I know a virus doesn’t have hands, shut it. I’d be lying if I said I’m not nervous. I’m scheduled for a procedure in about ten days, and a nearby hospital is testing a patient right now for the virus, results they say in a few days. I’m on the fence. I can put it off, but it’s probably not the greatest idea. SO, my mister and I have decided to see what the situation is a couple of days before, and if I feel hinky, it’s off.

    I’m not an alarmist, but I am a realist. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, especially with the crew of stankwankers in the WH. This is probably the one time I’m appreciating being such an introvert, because it ain’t a thang if I have to stay away from people for a month. *snort*

  5. Chuck, you have more intelligence and good common sense than anyone in the current administration. Putting Pence in charge just means he’ll take the blame if it goes to s**t. I have no confidence in people who do not understand the rudiments of science. Things like how diseases spread and what kind of cluster f**k we will have if we do not start now, like today, to encourage people to quickly make plans to work remotely and study remotely. I have faith in some of our local universities — although mine has sometimes been known to open late when everything in the city is closed. But they also have plans for various emergencies and act on them. I am lucky to be able to work from home if need be — and the Amazon delivery person is here so often, the neighbors think he’s my main squeeze. He’ll just have to start wearing a mask and not breathe on the arugula. Take care of yourself.

  6. A couple things to take note of:

    The death rate from “normal flu” is 0.1 percent, so a 2% death rate is TWENTY TIMES AS DEADLY. Also, the 1918 flu pandemic, that killed 100 million people worldwide and brought World War I to a halt – had a 2% death rate (we think of it decimating the troops, but there they were, crowded on ships, in barracks, in the trenches – perfect places for a disease wildfire).

    Also, there are very very very few N95 masks available. Here in Los Angeles, they have been sold out of everywhere (people have even realized that N95 paint respirators work) for a week. All but one supplier is in China, so don’t plan on too many resupplies, and the one US supplier was quoted in a news article yesterday about how he has been yelling at the government for 10 years to stock up – he’s producing 600,000 a day now and can ramp up to a million a day. In other words there will be enough for everyone in a year.

    President Incompetent Fatassed Fuckwit said yesterday that a vaccine would be ready “soon.” Fortunately, the NIH’s Dr. Fauci, the guy in charge of creating a vaccine, spoke next and said that if they have sequenced the RNA right, and if everything after that works exactly right (raw materials, etc.) that the vaccine will be ready in 18 months. Contradicting Dear Leader The Chosen One right in front of him probably means the good doctor will be fired by the weekend, so there’s that.

    You wouldn’t be panicking to get canned food and non-refrigerated food sufficient for a month, and you’d be well advised to DO IT NOW because when I went out yesterday and today to do that, store shelves are already emptying, and consider how much of all that COMES FROM CHINA.

    As far as all the little whippy-do writers events are concerned, this over-60 guy with a mild case of COPD isn’t going anywhere. Sitting here in the writing room away from people will be a very good excuse to get very productive. People can meet me in the fall of 2021, after the vaccine has been distributed.

    Speaking of Wanderers, the Stand, etc., events like this are Evolution’s IQ test. Are you smarter than a moron?

  7. Statistics presently show the rate of recoveries is outstripping the rate of new infections* – that’s overall across the planet. I.e. the total number of people with coronavirus is dropping. The more recent outbreaks are a drop in the bucket numbers-wise compared to the initial Chinese outbreak.

    As long as we’re not dumb about this – and help is provided to those who aren’t in a position to help themselves – this shouldn’t be 1918 MkII.

    But as you say, there’s a lot we don’t know yet (much like life, the universe and everything else, in that respect).


    • Have you noticed who is in charge?

      Did you see that the man in CA who was infected came from the fact that they utterly mishandled the novel coronavirus evacuees, and have threatened a whistleblower over it?

      I really would be cautious about assuming this thing is somehow over with.

      • I wasn’t looking at this from a US point of view, being part of the 95% of the world’s population that isn’t American. Trump/Pence may be in charge of what happens in your country (for a given value of ‘in charge’), but they sure as hell aren’t in charge of what happens in the rest of the world. Frankly, coronavirus ain’t your only problem. Maybe not even your worst problem. (Somebody might be surprised if guns kill more Americans in 2020 than coronavirus, but it won’t be me.)

        And “shouldn’t be 1918 MkII” is not by any means the same thing as “over with”.

        • Right, but how our country handles this matters a lot for the world. How our country handles anything and everything matters a lot for the world. Which isn’t good, but it’s true.

  8. I worry about the use of hand sanitizers. You’d be better off to bring your own soap (and maybe a hand towel?) and keep washing your hands. Maybe we need to bring gloves back? I worry about the effect on the environment too of this mass panic. I shared a video on Twitter from AJ showing a group making cloth masks, maybe that’s an option? We definitely should start looking at how we can bring back reusables (cloth hankies and such) because washing solves many issues. And there are going to be more pandemics in the future. Lets make sure we still have options.

  9. Hey Chuck. I am an organizer of a medium sized book festival (about 700 attendees, 90 authors, volunteers) and I’ve been looking at this very thing. So, yes, I’ve been listening to the pronouncements and trying to formulate an epidemic emergency plan. It’s hard to do with so much still up in the air about the virus. It’s important to me because not only am I concerned about creating an event that could possibly spread illness, I’m one of those people susceptible. Over 60, immunocompromised, and with my own breathing issues–I don’t want to get sick either. So thanks for the reminder. Stay well everyone!

  10. Well, I’ll be seeing you in Tucson . . . maybe. I’m on four panels at the festival. I’m about to turn 70. I’m on immunosuppressant medication as is my significant other who will be traveling with me. We’ll pass through three airports to get to Tucson. Do I go or do I stay home? I feel like a wuss even considering the question. I’m just glad to know I’m not the only one grappling with this.

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