When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lifted the mask mandate for people who have been fully vaccinated, it threw yet another monkey wrench into plans to bring back in-person events.
Yes, legally speaking, event organizers can require all in attendance to be fully vaccinated, as long as they provide accommodations for those with medical or religious exemptions.
But the question remains: Should you? And if you do, should you require everyone to wear a mask anyway to protect the exempted-unvaccinated among your attendees, exhibitors and staff? Should you restrict participation only to those who can prove they are fully vaccinated? If so, do you go by the honor system, or require proof of vaccination? Likewise, if you do not restrict attendance to just those who are fully vaccinated, how do you ensure that only those who are fully vaccinated go mask-free while at your event?
Some trade show organizers, notably but not exclusively those that serve healthcare professionals, have opted to require all who participate to be fully vaccinated. But how they choose to go about it varies from organizer to organizer.
View video of Barbara Dunn, Partner, Barnes & Thornburg LLP, and Lisa Sommer Devlin, Devlin Law Firm, PC, representing both planner (Dunn) and Hotel (Devlin) legal positions on requiring attendees to be vaccinated to attend, sponsored by HopSkip.
A Few Cases in Point
Last week, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, Inc. (HIMSS) made a splash when its adoption of a “vaccination required” policy for all attendees, exhibitors and HIMSS staff went public. “If an attendee, exhibitor or HIMSS staff member does not meet these requirements, they are NOT considered fully vaccinated and will not be permitted to enter the HIMSS21 campus,” HIMSS outlined on its show health and safety information hub for the show, which will be held August 9–13 in Las Vegas. As of press time, the trade show organizer was still evaluating which technology provider participants could use to demonstrate proof of full vaccination. As of press time, it had not yet decided whether to also require masks or other COVID-related protocols.
HIMSS is joined by other healthcare trade show organizers, including the American College of Chest Physicians. ACCP’s CHEST Annual Meeting, scheduled to be held October 17–20 at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center, appears to be taking the honor system route, requiring attendees, staff and faculty to attest to receiving full FDA-approved vaccination — as well as wear masks and follow physical distancing guidelines.
Taking a Harder Line
HLTH’s HLTH 2021, scheduled for October 17–20 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, decided to institute strict full-vaccination requirements for all attendees, sponsors, exhibitors and event staff. HLTH attendees must use the Health Pass on the CLEAR app, downloadable at no charge, to submit proof of vaccination. Those who can’t prove they’ve gotten the full dose of one of the FDA-approved vaccines can purchase a ticket to access the event digitally.
“While there is still much to be learned about COVID, one thing remains clear, and that is a fully vaccinated population is our best hope for preventing the spread, saving lives and putting an end to this pandemic,” said Jonathan Weiner, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, HLTH.
“The HLTH team remains unequivocally devoted to safeguarding our staff, attendees and the local community hosting HLTH,” Weiner added. “We cannot and will not ignore the science: Vaccinated individuals are the most unlikely demographic to catch or transmit COVID. Those who remain unvaccinated are the most at risk and also pose a significant risk to others.”
“For these reasons and, having carefully considered all viable options, we have made the decision to require everyone who plans to join us in person at HLTH 2021 to be fully vaccinated. It is our hope that masking and social distancing can become personal decisions during HLTH 2021 — including at evening networking events.”
He added that HLTH will be continually updating its COVID-19 safety page as local, state and regional guidelines evolve.
But it’s not just healthcare organizations that are going the full-vaccination-requirement route. The 32nd Hunter Hotel Investment Conference, held May 10–12, also used CLEAR’s Health Pass to screen attendees. After answering health-screening questions, attendees were issued either a green signal indicating they had satisfied requirements for entry, or a red no-go signal.
Things continue to get murkier as state, municipal and regional authorities, as well as venue operators, begin to lift mask mandates and other COVID-19–related safety guidance and regulations. In some states, individual cities and regions may still have stricter requirements than the state.
In some regions, requiring full vaccination and/or negative COVID tests may be necessary to meet the local area’s requirements. According to a Los Angeles County Public Health Department update for meetings and events issued May 6, indoor private events, which are limited to a maximum of 200, are permitted only if all guests tested negative for COVID-19 or show proof of full vaccination against COVID-19. And, while the state of California won’t ask its residents to be able to flash an official vaccine passport when it lifts distancing and capacity limits on June 15, organizers of indoor events hosting 5,000 or more people will need to verify — with the method of their choosing, including self-attestation — that attendees have been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19, according to an article in the Daily Democrat.
Meanwhile, on the other coast, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed legislation that prohibits private businesses, schools, and government offices from requiring citizens to show proof of vaccination against COVID: any business operating in Florida “may not require patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or post-infection recovery to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the business operations in this state.” How could this law could affect meetings and conventions? Trade show organizers can take a hint from the recent announcement that Florida-based cruise ships that ask passengers for vaccination verification will be subject to fines up to $5,000 per passenger.
Even if the destination and/or venue drops mask mandates, maximum occupancies and social-distancing rules, event organizers can still legally require stricter policies, including full vaccination requirements (see video above). But they should be prepared for the potential for more push-back from attendees and exhibitors if the destination’s rules are more lenient than that of the trade show organizers. They also should be prepared for reduced attendance among exhibitors and attendees, as many companies still have their own travel restrictions in place.
An International Twist
In some cases, the destination could render moot the need for show organizers to require vaccination, at least for some attendees. One example is CPhl Worldwide, a large global pharma conference and exhibition that attracts more than 100,000 attendees. It is scheduled to take place this year in Italy’s Fiera Milano exhibition hall November 9-11. The Italian government decided to allow conferences and trade shows of all sizes after July 1.
Until now, international attendance has been questionable because of country-by-country travel restrictions. But as of May 18, the EU will allow all international travelers who have been vaccinated to enter EU countries, though it currently is up to each country to determine what they will accept as proof of vaccination. If all international travelers have to provide proof of vaccination to enter the country, it would logically follow that trade show organizers could accept their presence in the country as proof enough of full vaccination.
That could change as the pandemic and its related restrictions continue to ebb and flow. As long as the COVID situation remains fluid, organizers would be well-advised to remain in close communication with local, state and federal authorities as situations continue to evolve.
Will this Trend Last?
More food for thought: “Legal opinions aside, some events may require vaccination, but based on the recent CDC guidance and opening trends, I see it being short-lived,” said Rich Vallaster, Director of Marketing and Events Industry Relations with Personify A2Z Events.
“More importantly, the events eco-system is too large to provide a secure ‘vaccination bubble.'” He pointed out that attendees and exhibitors who travel to the event easily encounter hundreds of individuals before arrival. Once on site, every venue (rideshares, hotels, restaurants, convention centers, etc.) increase the number exponentially. “It would be impossible to require vaccinations throughout that ecosystem. So, before organizers try to boil the ocean, they need to realize that the CDC has provided us clear guidance on how to interact with the public safely. And like all safety precautions, it will be up to the individual on deciding on how to manage (participate) and mitigate any risks. Of course, show organizers will need to follow local protocols and provide a reasonably safe environment but it won’t be on show organizers to manage the impossible.”