Truth and Consequences: Holding In-Person Meetings

By Donna Oser posted 11-06-2020 00:00


feet and a question mark

By all accounts, participants at MSAE's Executive Forum shared an excellent learning experience. In the post-event evaluation, attendees praised the conversation formats, speakers, and small group activities.  In truth, the only constructive feedback received was that maybe we'd gone overboard on our safety precautions. This blog post explores those protocols, the evolving state of COVID, and what happened after the event.  

Laying the Ground Work for a Safe Event

Everyone who plans events knows how much time goes into them. In this case, the most significant portion of time was focused on participant safety. That was time well spent because just forty-eight hours before our event was scheduled to start, we became aware of closures on Mackinac Island due to COVID. The closures were voluntary, and no official warning had been issued. (We'd maintained contact with the local health department in planning the event.) After conferring with our Chairman, the decision was made to move ahead with the event but notify registrants of the situation and case data so each registrant could make their own decision. Participants told us they appreciated the candor and understood the risk. We set off for our event with a renewed vigilance, looking forward to gathering.

We scrutinized every room setup, traffic pattern, and foodservice. With the cancellation fee waived, pre-event communications encouraged attendees to stay home if they were symptomatic. Masks were required when participants were away from their seats, and individual seating areas far exceeded social distancing guidelines. Reception, meal, and meeting setups were viewed in advance to ensure social distancing and limit contact. The venue sanitized tables and chairs several times a day. Even in the iconic dining room of The Grand Hotel, changes were made to accommodate our extreme social distancing expectations. For their part, our participants honored social distancing guidelines and were solicitous of one another and venue staff to ensure safety. All in all, the MSAE team felt good about the safety of our event. Post-event evaluations confirmed our perception that we'd delivered a high quality and safe event for our members.  

A Positive Test

And then - seven days after the event concluded - the phone rang. "I need to let you know I've tested positive for COVID. I haven't talked to any [health officials] yet, and no tracing has been done, but I thought I should let you know." And there it was. One of our event participants had COVID. 

Our first concern was their health. Largely asymptomatic, the participant was experiencing allergy symptoms per usual but decided to get a test "just because it seemed like the right thing to do after being in a group." Did the participant have COVID before the event? Contract it during the event? Pick it up after the event? There was no way to know without contact tracing. We made a plan to contact all related health departments (the venue's, the participant's, and MSAE's) and reconnect after. We drafted a notice to our participants and waited to hear back. Four hours went by, and we weren’t able to speak to anyone at the three health departments we contacted. (Ten days has passed and still, no contact tracing has occurred.)

Worried about our participants but unable to speak with any health official, MSAE could no longer sit on the information. It was time to send the most dreaded communication. "As a participant of MSAE's Executive Forum and valued member of our community, I am emailing to inform you that you may have come into contact with someone at the event who has now tested positive for COVID-19..."  

As you can imagine, our participants had questions, and we had few answers. We answered what we could while maintaining the confidentiality of the attendee's identity. We got tested. We encouraged others to get tested. And we waited. Some reported back to us, and some did not.  We know at least one other participant tested positive. We know their family members tested positive. And we wonder if our event contributed to their contracting the virus. 

The Decision to Host In-Person Meetings

Should your association host an in-person event before a vaccine is readily available? From a human and relational standpoint, how should that decision be made? Having hosted two in-person events during the pandemic, here is my advice*: 

  1. Assume that someone at your event will have or contract COVID. Despite the extreme safety precautions at our event, as well as other notable industry events being held this fall, attendees tested positive. 
  2. Identify the specific precautions you'll put into place with an imminent exposure in mind and the cost associated with those precautions.  
  3. Before making your decision, write the communications you'll have to send to notify attendees of an exposure. 

These simple acts - as well as the process of reviewing and approving them - will help you get a better understanding of your association's tolerance for the harsh realities of holding in-person meetings during a pandemic. 

Post Script: Thankfully, the affected participants and their families did not have severe symptoms and seem to be recuperating. We are eager for their full recovery.

*This is not intended as - nor should it replace-  legal advice.