Covid-19 spikes in many states have prompted pauses in reopening plans and rollbacks on gathering limitations. Philadelphia, for example, has banned indoor gatherings of more than one household through Jan 1. New restrictions in Iowa limit indoor events to no more than 15 people, while New Jersey has banned such gatherings with more than 10 guests.
The new guidelines push the return of larger events further into the future. But this gives event planners and business leaders more time to learn how they can protect and monitor the health of large numbers of people when it is deemed safer to hold such meetings.
By nature, travel and mass gatherings at conference centers or hotels create risks for getting sick. The ultra-contagious coronavirus, resulting in a worldwide pandemic that now finds the U.S. as the epicenter, continually reminds us that there is no definitive playbook to combat it. And there is a palpable anxiety and outright fear people have now, and will continue to have, until an effective vaccine is approved and made widely available.
When large events are allowed to resume, planners will need to have a plan in place for protecting their attendees, reducing the risk of infection spread, and providing every stakeholder with the resources they need to feel safe. Essentially, we need to re-establish health security in the meetings industry, and doing so means applying three main principles from which a sound plan can be formed.
There are certain things you must do to prevent illness at a meeting. They include seating configurations that allow for physical distancing, sending out communications about all protocols, encouraging frequent breaks for hand washing, and disinfecting surfaces more frequently in heavy-traffic rooms. Hotel staff should guarantee the cleaning of each meeting room between each meeting, including the cleaning of all chair/table surfaces and spraying the room before the next group arrives. Also, you need the ability to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) or work with a vendor to procure masks and gloves for those who will still be on edge about attending.
If you're a forward-thinking company that's going to hold meetings this year or in 2021, you will likely have to deal with sick attendees. They may have the seasonal flu, a cold, or they may have Covid-19, and you need to plan accordingly. It starts with giving temperature checks at the beginning of each day, temperature checks at general sessions, and temperature checks when people are registering at the conference.
If anyone at the meeting is showing flu-like symptoms, it's critical to find out whether they have Covid-19 by providing access to rapid testing. The testing doesn't necessarily have to be on site; if not, find a local resource to do the testing.
If some attendees are sick, meeting organizers need to know how they will handle that. It's advisable to come up with a strong sick-attendee policy that's enforceable and can be monitored. That means if someone is sick, they don't attend the meeting. If they are already at the event, they must go back to their room. If their test is positive for Covid, they have to be quarantined. Who did they come into close contact with while at the meeting? Those people, too, will need to be tested.
Remember, communication is extraordinarily important at a large meeting — now more than ever. You might want to have somebody dedicated to that role, putting informative and honest content together on health and safety procedures. Attendees must be told the facts, such as what the Covid situation is at that time in the U.S. and in the city where the meeting is held. Give people the opportunity to ask questions and address them. Conference planners are not medical experts, so it's helpful to guide attendees to appropriate websites that can update them on the virus and safety precautions.
What the meetings industry needs to start accepting is that pandemics now happen more frequently — we've had two in the first two decades of the 21st century. This industry is always vulnerable to illness. So, planners should adhere to the principles above and develop consistent strategies to reduce that vulnerability.
For more info on how to reduce health risks at meetings, read this Q&A with Jonathan Spero, CEO of InHouse Physicians.
Dr. Richard Arriviello has been the CMO for InHouse Physicians for more than 15 years, helping provide employee health services to some of the largest corporations in the world. Most recently he spearheaded IHP's Covid return-to-work program for employers. Dr. Arriviello graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and completed his residency at Midwestern University in Chicago. He is board-certified in emergency medicine, licensed to practice medicine in more than 20 states and has worked for the past 25 years in a variety of medical settings, ranging from level-one trauma centers to regional community hospitals and multinational corporations.