Novel Coronavirus, more exactly called COVID-19, has spread throughout the world over the past few months, multiplying from Wuhan in China to now reaching countries around the world. News cycles are full of coverage on the virus, with regions and entire countries going into quarantine.
While COVID-19 is a threat and should be taken seriously, the fact of the matter is that it is important to keep perspective when confronting the threat. With a clear mind, planners will be able to make the most of the issues at hand, as well as make plans no matter the eventuality.
If your event has not already been cancelled because it has been scheduled for later on in the year. Now is the time to start planning for all eventualities.
Keep Things In Perspective
Keeping everything in perspective is perhaps the most important single thing that an event planner can do to help make their jobs easier. As per the latest figures from the Economist (February 29th issue), more than 80% of those infected with COVID-19 who show symptoms have the disease present as something similar in severity as the flu.
Additionally, COVID-19 has a relatively low death count so far, staying in the thousands. Ten times that many people die every year of the flu. Additionally, the flu and COVID-19 have many of the same vectors, or ways to infect humans.
Know Your Attendees
However, perspective only counts for so much. Understanding who your attendees are will also help inform your decision on if holding an event is still a worthwhile idea. While most events can still continue, making sure that some common sense questions are asked prior to the conference date will help ensure the safety and health of all those in attendance.
Who is Vulnerable?
COVID-19 presents the most severe symptoms with those who already have weakened immune systems, either due to age or preexisting condition. A convention of football players is unlikely to face the same risks of infection as a meeting of pensioners. However, special care should be given to make sure that even if a group as a whole is not vulnerable, those with special needs are still protected.
What Have They Been Doing?
Equally important is having some idea of what an event’s attendees have been doing prior to the meeting. If the conference in question is likely to have a large number of individuals who have travelled internationally, then the event should be called into some question. Even regional travel is also worth noting; trains and planes can present opportunities for infection, even if the conference-goers have had little real exposure prior to embarkation.
Once the decision to hold the event has been made, the event planner is not released from his/her responsibilities for the health and welfare of those in attendance. In structuring the event to working with event staff and even local healthcare providers, there are still a number of steps that should be taken to reduce the likelihood of spreading COVID-19 throughout a conference.
One of the most obvious of these is making sure that any networking events are focused on speaking, not on touching. Business etiquette may dictate a handshake under normal circumstances, but these are certainly not normal circumstances! Many conferences have advised a business ‘fistbump’ or a polite ‘elbow tap,’ but there is no reason that conference goers cannot simply forego any physical contact whatsoever. With enough planning, even the need to trade phone numbers and email addresses can be dealt with centrally rather than through informal means.
Frequent Hand Washing
Public health officials continue to remind all involved that the most crucial way to avoid the spread of COVID-19 is frequent hand-washing and to avoid touching one’s face. Make a point to routinely remind those at the event of this fact, while providing longer breaks for frequent hand washing. Additionally, providing bottles of hand sanitizer offer some defence against the virus, but 20 seconds of solid hand washing is still the gold standard.
An issue that could emerge, especially if there is to be a food service, is how sanitation standards are enforced amongst staff. Some countries, namely the United States, have lax requirements for worker health, with employees showing up sick to work being the norm due to economic conditions. In the UK, that is not as much of an issue, but it is still wise to make sure that venue staff have contingency plans in place in case an employee, or multiple employees, suddenly are diagnosed with the virus.
Local Healthcare Providers
Depending on the size of the event in question, it may be advisable to work with the local NHS Trust to provide on-site healthcare providers for diagnosis. If the event is large enough, this is a great idea. A few hundred people would not warrant this sort of action, but a conference of thousands could benefit from having a few nurses running temporal fever scans to provide a measure of safety for the event. Working with local hospitals also makes sure that any who do have symptoms are quickly screened, and if necessary, treated.
Feel Free to Discourage
While it may still be advisable to go forward with the event, there are some people who may well do better by simply staying at home. Anyone who has travelled to an infected region, namely China, Iran, South Korea, or Italy, in the past two or three weeks should be asked to stay at home, and instead participate via the internet. Regardless of travel, those who are not feeling well, or who have weakened immune systems, should still be encouraged to stay home, giving them adequate time to recover.
In fact, even those who do not feel well but have been cleared of COVID-19 should still be encouraged to stay away; a weakened immune system is a large risk factor for the virus, and, to be frank, many conference goers will be suspicious of anyone with a cough or runny nose.
Even the best laid plans can be fouled by fate, and COVID-19 could well be the cause for a cancellation. If a decision is made to cancel, there are still a number of questions that should be asked to help provide the best experience for all involved.
A pressing concern will be how much, if any, of the event cancellation fees are covered by insurance. This can be a difficult question. Luckily, the UK has a relatively straight-forward process by which to determine whether or not an event is covered. If a disease has been declared a “notifiable” disease, then policyholders can request remuneration.
Webinar as a Possibility?
If all of this is starting to sound a bit more trouble than it is worth, then it is likely that a webinar may be the best option. While not perfect, a webinar does drastically reduce the risk of infection for all those involved, while also permitting information to get around. Randomised chat facilities offer the ability to simulate networking, as does a more light-hearted approach to use of the conference directory. Most organisations will not find this to be a perfect replacement, but it is one that does mitigate the dangers of the event.
COVID-19 certainly deserves the respect of conference planners, but keeping it all in perspective is crucial. Through proper planning and adherence to basic hygiene best practices, event planning can continue through the spread of the disease. However, making sure that procedures are in place to take care of those who are ill, and ultimately prepare for a cancellation, will help make sure events go smoothly, even if an event must be cancelled or otherwise altered.
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