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What will it take for in-person events to return during Covid-19?

Attendees sit apart at social distanced tables segregated by ropes, during a conference held by the Institute of Policy Studies at Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre in Singapore January 25, 2021. Picture taken January 25, 2021. REUTERS/Edgar Su
Reuters/Edgar Su
Conferencing during Covid-19.
By Tripti Lahiri
Published Last updated

Davos was the first—and the last—big, in-person, international event to take place in 2020. Many of the 3,000 delegates who gathered at the end of January in the town nestled in the Swiss Alps were unaware that a global pandemic was looming.

Neither could they have imagined that a year later there would be two Davos editions—an online one taking place this week, and an IRL special edition in May in Singapore—if the threat of infection from the coronavirus is subdued enough to allow for it.

Meanwhile, what should have been the biggest event of 2020—the Olympics—ended up being postponed. As a result, Japan received under 5 million tourist arrivals last year, instead of the 40 million it had targeted. Now with many parts of Japan again under a state of emergency due to rising case numbers, doubts are already setting in about whether the postponed event can actually begin as planned on July 23.

Covid-19 has forced many organizers of international events to ask not only whether events can be held, but if they should be held at all.

Until people are widely vaccinated, organizers of in-person events must weigh the ethical risks that any given gathering could turn into a spreader event against the potential benefits, economic or otherwise. If risk is present even for outdoor events, which bring together people who haven’t traveled outside their borders in months, it’s surely magnified by having participants from multiple countries, never mind if it’s held indoors. If an outbreak linked to the event occurs, organizers and officials will have to publicly justify why they felt it was necessary to go ahead.

“Covid-19 anywhere in the world is in a very—how do I put it—fragile state of control so even places where you see relatively fewer Covid-19 cases, they’re often just perhaps only a few weeks from a full-fledged outbreak,” explained Siddharth Sridhar, clinical assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s microbiology department, “…when there’s so much unpredictability and risk involved, really the simple answer from our point of view is just go virtual.”

Australia’s cautionary tale

Of course, virtual’s not really an option for sports, which is why efforts have been underway to bring back international competitions as soon as possible. The preparations for the Australian Open, due to start Feb. 8 in Melbourne, are indicative of the kinds of tensions that organizers should expect.

In this case Tennis Australia, after negotiations with national and state authorities, moved ahead with the tournament, bringing some 1,200 participants into the country at a time when residents have been asked to sacrifice their regular routines and entry is severely limited—even many Australian nationals haven’t been able to return yet. Many in Melbourne were opposed to hosting the tournament after having lived through months of stringent lockdowns and finally emerged on the other side—for two weeks in January the province of Victoria recorded no new local cases.

Daniel Andrews, the premier for Victoria, has defended holding the games—a key fixture on the Grand Slam calendar—on the grounds that the city risks losing an important economic driver for good.

“If the Australian Open does not happen in Melbourne, it will happen somewhere else,” he said. “It will happen in Japan, it will happen in China, it will happen in Singapore. The real risk then is, it doesn’t come back.”

He added that the state would take “extraordinary steps” to make sure it happened in a safe way. Certainly, stringent precautions were taken to ensure the arriving athletes, officials and coaches didn’t pose a risk to locals. But chaos ensued anyway.

The tennis players came in on 17 special chartered flights, but many of them were put into a hard quarantine after a coach on one flight tested positive—an outcome the players said they hadn’t properly been warned about. Since then a spate of social media fights have broken out with some of the players complaining publicly of jail-like conditions, the lack of fresh air, bad food, and the inability to go outside even to train—which some sports journalists pointed out means this won’t even be a fair competition.

Some players later apologized to Australians angered by their complaints.

Tokyo…2022?

Similar tensions are expected to play out if the world’s biggest sporting event goes ahead this year. The International Olympic Committee reiterated last week that it is committed to the Tokyo games taking place in July, while acknowledging “there is no blueprint for this, and we are learning every day.” But in Japan, public opinion is overwhelmingly against holding the games. And there’s a lot of confusion and disagreement about the role the vaccines can or should play in helping the games happen.

While some news reports say Olympics executives are trying to make sure all participants can be vaccinated before arrival, Japanese officials have said having the vaccine won’t be a precondition. And certain countries’ Olympic Associations have said their athletes won’t jump vaccine queues to attend the games. For many countries, vaccinations are yet to start—including in Japan. (Sridhar notes it would be wise to proceed for now assuming there’s a chance someone vaccinated could pass on the virus, as it’s still too early for researchers to determine the impact on transmission.)

Japan’s prime minister has expressed his continued support for the games. But a close aide speaking this week said four conditions would need to be met: controlling infections, getting people to use contact-tracing devices, a vaccine rollout from next month, and some test sports events taking place between now and July.

A hybrid Davos

It’s more likely that Davos in Singapore could go ahead in some form, perhaps as a “hybrid” event, says Bart Buiring, head of sales and marketing for the Asia Pacific for Marriott hotels, with some small in-person events involving executives already based in the city-state for financial firms and other businesses, while additional people join in remotely. Several professional events have taken place in Asia in recent months in this manner, he said, particularly in China.

For meetings like these, expect registration to be far different from the name card drop and lanyard handing out practices previously in place. Registration will now include temperature checking, and will integrate a device or process for contract-tracing. There will of course be rapid on-site Covid testing. Venues will also need to start thinking about ventilation and airflow at conferences.

Then there’s the question of the extent to which attendees would be allowed to jet in—for how it would be Davos without that? Last year a sales conference in Singapore that drew 109 participants, mostly from outside the city-state, was later linked to at least 20 infections in six countries. Singapore is considering whether the risks from participants from elsewhere could be reduced if they are siloed at a specific spot to minimize contacts with locals—which could be the host hotel.

The Marina Bay Sands, which Reuters reported could be the venue for Singapore’s Davos, has resumed holding business conferences with limited participant numbers, which means the biggest venues have to be used, potentially making events more expensive. Guest tables are spaced out and separated with velvet ropes more typically seen outside nightclubs. The vice president of the hotel’s convention business has said that venues like this one will play a crucial role in bringing back events “by redesigning meeting experiences and food & beverage set-ups.”

One of the key attractions of such conferences is especially risky at the moment.

“A big part of these conferences, I imagine, is people gathering together and eating and drinking, but that is a strict no-no because those times when you’re eating or drinking are mask-off,” said Sridhar. “And having conversations in these kind of indoor areas is actually very, very conducive to virus transmission.”

Right now, whether in-person events like Davos and the Olympics will both go forward this year is anybody’s guess.

“Nobody at this moment can predict the health situation in 206 National Olympic Committees for the time of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, from late July until September of this year—not even the most prominent scientists in this area,” said the International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach.

But the day that such mega-events can happen again in any location without factoring for quarantines or temperature checks at venues, it’ll mean we’ve truly put the pandemic behind us.