Hosting a gathering during a pandemic

How to take care of people at an event that could kill them

Hosting events is a big part of how I earn my livelihood and how I do my community-building work. My year started with a plan to hold at least four retreats, each with around 40 people living together for a few days. Then the pandemic happened and we had to change plans. In the end we decided to cancel everything, apart from one gathering we hosted in France in September.

Event production is always a big job but the health situation made it significantly more difficult. In this post I’m going to share some of what I learned in the process. I’ll cover the specific safety policies, but perhaps more importantly, I’ll share how we communicated with guests about the risk.

Hopefully this is helpful for other event producers, as well as anyone who wants guidance on how to think about the risk of attending a gathering during a pandemic.

At the time of writing, the public health situation is looking dire in many parts of the world, so maybe the idea of putting 40 people in a big house for a long weekend seems stupid to you. I’m publishing now because my friends in the Southern Hemisphere are heading into warm weather and starting to think about gatherings again. With this desire to be together, there’s also a renewed confusion about how to think about the health risk. So here’s my take on it. I hope this is a useful contribution, and I urge you to supplement it with your own research!

Communicating with guests

In the lead-up to the event, we designated one person from the production team (me) as the ‘COVID safety officer’, rather than expecting the whole team to track the changing situation, understand the risk, and design reasonable policies. Taking on this role cost me a lot of lost sleep! I found it really challenging to wrestle with the question of host responsibility.

Bringing people together increases the risk of serious harm, so “of course” we shouldn’t do it. On the other hand, people are self-responsible, and if they are comfortable exposing themselves to a level of risk, then I am happy to host them. I had a crisis of confidence and came very close to cancelling. In the end I decided to follow Jacinda Ardern’s example and just focus on clear communication. In the end, I’m happy to say nobody caught COVID-19 at our gathering and we had an excellent shared experience.

3 weeks before the event, we emailed all guests and asked them to take some time for serious reflection to decide whether they were happy to take the risk. We included this briefing:

This is intended as a brief introduction to the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous challenge of reasoning about health risk. We’ll explain how we’re thinking about COVID risk in general, and in France specifically. We want to help you think about the risks of attending a gathering, so you can make a decision you are confident in.

Who do you listen to?
It’s up to each of us to make our own choices about who we trust and what guidance we listen to. Generally, people rely on public health institutions for guidance, e.g. we decided the gathering will proceed so long as it is legal to do so. However there have been many instances in this pandemic where enthusiastic amateurs have had far more accurate models than the experts. So we are listening to the officials, as well as reasoning from first principles, and paying attention to some of the more credible “amateur epidemiologist” geeks on Twitter.

As event hosts, we have a responsibility to our guests. We want you to be safe, so we have policies to reduce the risk. We are researching as best as we can, but we’re still just enthusiastic amateurs. Maybe we’ve overlooked or misunderstood something important. Therefore we encourage you to supplement our guidance with your own research.

Notice we are “reducing the risk”, not “minimising the risk”. The obvious way to minimise the risk is to not gather. Our intention is to create a deeply connecting renewing experience for people who have had a tough year. We think that is worth the risk.

Right now (Sept 4th), the virus is spreading faster than ever in France: more than 5000 new cases confirmed per day. However, the reported number of deaths is comparatively very low: less than 20 per day, compared to 1000+ at the peak.

So the virus is spreading but fewer of the infected people are dying. It’s important to note that there are still many bad outcomes from infection besides death. But perhaps we can use the mortality rate as a proxy for thinking about how much harm this virus does to a population.

Because the severity is comparatively low right now, we feel it is safe enough to gather, with appropriate precautions. The officials apparently agree, as there are no restrictions on private gatherings, schools are open, etc.

(Sources: cases, deaths.)

Reducing transmission
The CDC believes COVID is primarily transmitted through droplets which linger in the air after people talk, sneeze or cough. Therefore the main way to reduce transmission is to avoid 3C’s (Crowds, Closed Spaces and Close Contact) and prefer MODified activities (Masked, Outdoors and Distanced).

For a roughly equivalent mental model think about how cigarette smoke moves. Imagine I smoked a cigarette in a closed room half an hour before you arrived, or while sitting next to you on a park bench outside, or on the other side of the street. In each of these scenarios you will smell it more or less depending on distance, ventilation, time etc.

Risk modelling
In our research we’ve found some mental models that help us to reason about the risk. The most useful one comes from microCOVID.org, which we’re reproducing here. Different activities have different levels of risk e.g. kissing is riskier than talking. Modifying the activity changes the risk, e.g. wearing masks, increasing your distance, or moving outdoors. The microCOVID project has put some numbers on how much difference those modifications make. Considering the relative size of these numbers helps us to reason about the risk, e.g. moving outdoors makes a massive positive difference, and singing/yelling is significantly risky.

Source (with citations)

Group size
Another major factor that increases risk is group size. A group of 10 average people is twice as likely to include a COVID-infected person than a group of 5 people.

Social responsibility
So far, everything here has been explained in terms of the risk to you. Your personal risk tolerance may be high, but you also have to think about all the people who would be affected by a chain of infections. Lowering your exposure helps to protect more vulnerable people.

Regional risk
Another important risk factor to consider is the prevalence of the virus in a given area. For example, the same activity in San Francisco is 60x more risky than in Sydney, because there are many more cases there.

We received a lot of positive feedback from guests who read this briefing, because they said it helped them to clarify their decision to come. Our actual safety policies at the event were a bit sloppy, so in the next section, I will tell you what I wish he had done:

Safety policies

  • warn people not to come if they are in an at-risk group
  • deny entry to anyone with symptoms in the prior 2 weeks
  • check everyone’s temperature on arrival
  • immediately isolate anyone with symptoms & seek medical attention in the case of severe symptoms
  • everyone takes a wristband on arrival to signal their risk tolerance: red = I’m very concerned about the risk so please keep your distance; orange = I’m taking moderate precautions; green = pandemic? what pandemic?
  • as much as possible do everything outdoors as that drops the risk factor by the most significant factor
  • give everyone a mini bottle of sanitiser to carry with them and make it a fun/light/silly/normal part of the agenda to frequently sanitise hands
  • food service is complicated: the aim is to minimise the number of hands touching the same thing, so that might mean having a couple of masked & gloved caterers serving everyone (which is slow); or if serving buffet style, at least everyone brings their own serving cutlery from the table, rather than everyone sharing one spoon

Vibe hygiene
Maybe equally important to the physical hygiene is the vibe hygiene. Our objective for gathering people is to create a tender environment where they can weave new relationships for vulnerable mutual support, self-inquiry and shared celebration. I don’t really know how to do that while rigorously maintaining 6 feet of social distance in a climate of fear about an invisible threat.

Creating an intimate event for people to connect usually involves quite a lot of close physical contact, intentionally mixing as many people as possible, close encounters, physical affection etc. Doing this in the context of a pandemic creates a “vibe management” job, to attend to people’s needs for physical safety, as well as their needs for intimacy. That is an incredibly difficult job! Honestly, in our case we just tried to get the people with intense safety concerns to not come, so we didn’t have to do too much anxiety management during the event. That worked pretty well, in the sense that nobody got sick and stress levels seemed reasonably low.

It came at a cost though: there was a palpable peer pressure for people to relax their safety concerns and go with the flow. The other major cost was that the people who decided to not participate where disproportionately people from marginalised communities, so we had a strikingly low diversity of participants (mostly young white urbanites who are not deeply entangled in extensive networks of relational obligations).

From my perspective, most of the people who showed up came with the mindset of “maybe I will get sick, but this is the one gathering I will attend this year, and the rest of the time I’m isolated in lockdown, so it is worth the risk”.

Suppliers, refunds, and flexible admin

It was also fucking hard to manage the finances! We had constant changes in who was coming or not coming, which meant constant changes in the budget. I used my awesome spreadsheet skills to develop a flexible ticketing system that could manage everything without getting lost.

We were very generous with our refund policy, trying to make it easy for people to say Yes to buying a ticket, knowing they could cancel at the last minute and not take a financial hit. I think we gave everyone refunds up til about 7 days out.

The main supplier is a friend, so we just had open conversations about how to balance our needs and theirs. We initially paid deposits for three events we intended to host with them this year. In the end we went ahead with one, rescheduled one to next year, and cancelled one, and they didn’t charge us any penalties. So we’re very grateful! The lesson here is to work with suppliers that you intend to have a long-term relationship with, and keep the lines of communication wide open.

p.s. If you want to be occasionally notified about my writing, please join my free newsletter. Cheers!

p.p.s This work is licensed CC0, meaning you have unrestricted permission to do with it what you like. You can give credit Richard D. Bartlett if you like, and please cite the significant contributions of the microCOVID.org project.

I write about working together. Me: richdecibels.com My work: thehum.org