For two years, the pandemic has disrupted the event industry. Numerous weddings, bat and bar mitzvahs, milestone birthdays, conferences and large social gatherings worldwide were canceled or postponed. My own wedding in London was rescheduled six months from our original date. Then, at the cusp of the omicron wave in December 2021, my now-husband and I considered canceling altogether.
It feels like we’re at a crossroads: Many social gatherings are resuming ― perhaps even booming more than before. We’re in a stage where more people are continuing with events despite COVID risks. So how do we properly navigate this? How can you be responsible with a large gathering?
Below, infectious disease and event experts weigh in on what to consider when thinking about a big event. Here’s what you should ask yourself as you plan:
Am I OK with uncertainty and can I be flexible based on COVID cases?
While many people have generally moved on from the pandemic, COVID is still circulating, said Brian Labus, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Public Health. As a result, any large event still has the potential to spread disease. There also is no way to predict what will happen in the near (or long) future with the circulation of new and upcoming variants.
“There is an additional challenge in planning events that will not take place for at least several months, as we do not know what will be happening at that time,” Labus said. “There could be a large surge in cases that places the guest at higher risk, and that surge could lead to local restrictions on gathering sizes or behaviors such as mask requirements. Things could also remain as they are now.”
For anyone planning a large event, it’s important to recognize that there still may not be complete certainty around COVID when the event rolls around and it’s important to be flexible should your original plans need to be adjusted.
What level of risk are we willing to tolerate?
Melissa Fancy, a wedding planner in Park City, Utah, stresses doing your own personal risk assessment before going through with an event.
“If you’re having a party at this point, assuming risk will always be a part of the story,” she said. “I just tell my clients, if you’re not OK with the risk, then it would be better to hold off.”
The same applies to guests. Labus said that there’s reasonable anxiety around many factors associated with an event, like traveling on a plane, staying at a hotel or interacting with strangers. Everyone’s risk tolerance is different; what you’re willing to navigate might be different from certain guests’ comfort and it’s important to be respectful and understanding.
Anyone planning or attending an event should consider what would potentially happen if they got sick (a “mild” infection may not actually be mild, for example), their health risk factors and just generally what they’re willing to tolerate for the event. The risk of those who are in your household who may be in contact with you should also be considered.
What safety precautions can I take to reduce the risk?
Leah Weinberg, a former attorney and owner and creative director of Color Pop Events, advises couples planning an event to consider ways they can safely host and what precautions they are willing to enact or even pay for themselves.
Checking local transmission rates before you commit is one way to help in this regard. Additionally, “consider steps like on-site testing, requiring guests to be fully vaccinated, and hosting outdoor events,” Weinberg said. “You can also make sure the space is well-ventilated if indoors. Couples also need to take their guests into consideration to assess whether there are guests on their list who are high-risk.”
Does the venue offer an alternative plan for COVID issues?
Your contract is also a huge point of consideration. If restrictions or illness alter your event when the day comes, it may be difficult to get out of it if you don’t build that in from the beginning, explained Jacquelyn Aleece, a corporate event and wedding planner in New Jersey and California.
“The biggest financial risk is signing binding contracts with venues or vendors that don’t allow for alternative plans to be made should there be a government shutdown that pauses events, mandates limited guest count or in the event staff or vendors become ill and can’t fulfill their duties,” Aleece said.
Anyone planning an event should have a plan B or C prepared given the fluidity of the pandemic — and make sure their venue is on board with that, too, before signing up.
It’s tough to figure out how best to host an event. Weigh out what your priorities are and balance them against any hesitations or concerns you or guests may have and make a decision that feels right.