How Science Writers organizers planned the in-person conference’s COVID-19 safety measures

Masked Science Writers attendees watch a conference session. Photo by Betsy Ladyzhets.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that the Science Writers conference—which I attended in-person—had great COVID-19 safety policies, better than other events I’ve gone to this year.

The meeting of about 450 science journalists and communicators included required masks indoors, outdoor space for meals, and a vaccine requirement, among other safety measures. As I write this, about three weeks after the conference, there have been no reports of COVID-19 outbreaks (though the organizers were not requiring attendees to share all test results).

I’ve previously reported on COVID-19 safety at large events, so I wanted to learn more about how the Science Writers organizers planned the conference and communicated policies to attendees. To find out, I talked to Tinsley Davis, executive director of the National Association of Science Writers.

Davis shared behind-the-scenes insight into planning the 2022 Science Writers conference and tips for other event organizers. Her insight might be helpful whether you’re organizing a large journalism meeting or a small family gathering at Thanksgiving.

Rather than transcribing the entire interview, I wrote a paraphrased summary (with quotes from Davis throughout). Let me know what you think about this format in comparison to past Q&As!

Paying attention to COVID-19 news, planning in advance

The Science Writers conference is a joint effort by two organizations, the National Association of Science Writers (or NASW, a membership organization) and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (or CASW, a nonprofit that runs awards programs, fellowships, and other initiatives). 

Representatives from both organizations meet regularly on a steering committee to plan the annual meeting, Davis explained. In early 2021, that group paid attention to the vaccine rollout and started thinking about safety for a potential in-person meeting in the fall.

“We are very fortunate to have, amongst our volunteer leadership, science journalists and science communicators, and people who are generally paying very close attention to not only what’s happening in the news, but what’s happening in the research community,” Davis said. “And they’re paying to attention to it both out of professional interests, but also out of personal interest… So we can leverage that in our discussions, and we don’t need to separately bring people up to speed.”

These discussions led to initial plans for a hybrid meeting in October 2021, which would have both in-person and virtual components. The in-person conference planned to include a vaccine requirement and other safety measures. But in August, when the Delta variant surged across the country, NASW and CASW decided to shift the meeting to only virtual.

Still, the 2021 plans and discussions proved to be helpful when the steering committee began to plan the next year’s meeting. “When we started the conversation in earnest in early 2022, we looked back to those policies that we had developed for 2021 and used those as a base to start thinking,” Davis said.

Collaborating with the venue

Science Writers 2022 took place in Memphis, Tennessee, with most events at the Renesant Convention Center. But unlike other conferences I’ve attended this year, most sessions with food were not held inside the convention center: the center had space available outside for people to eat and drink in a much lower-risk environment.

I asked Davis about how she and the other organizers planned for outdoor dining. Staff at the convention center were very receptive to safety requests, she said: “We were met with such support and creativity.” This included closing down a street outside the conference center for one outdoor lunch event, and taking advantage of another outdoor area that was closed to traffic.

It’s worth noting here, the weather really worked in favor of outdoor dining and socializing. For most of the weekend, temperatures were pleasant (in the 60s and 70s) and there was no rain. “It was a beautiful fall weekend,” Davis said.

In addition to the outdoor plans, venue staff shared what they’d learned about COVID-19 safety from hosting other large conferences in spring and summer 2022, Davis told me. That included plans for how to arrange chairs in conference rooms for social distancing, and using security guards (required for crowd control) to help “gently remind” conference attendees to keep their masks on. Staff were also “readily able to talk about MERV ratings,” a measure of ventilation in the building, Davis added.

Conferences like Science Writers typically aren’t able to extend their COVID-19 safety measures beyond attendees—in other words, the organizers can’t require convention center staff to mask up. But staff at the Resenant Convention Center “were very thoughtful about masking up” in conference spaces, Davis noted. (I observed and appreciated this as well.)

Balancing safety and cost

One of the best measures to reduce COVID-19 spread at a large event is rapid testing at the door, a safety policy backed up by scientific studies. But this type of mass testing can get pretty expensive for a conference of about 450 people, the size of Science Writers this year.

“Cost is part of any decision,” Davis said. “And anytime you put the word ‘conference’ in front of something, it gets way more expensive. Like even a cup of yogurt gets more expensive when you have the words ‘conference catering’ in front of it.”

Operating with a limited budget, the Science Writers organizing committee chose to prioritize an independent vaccine verification system, so that staff didn’t need to check all attendees’ vaccine cards upon arrival. They used the CrowdPass system and required everyone attending in-person to submit their vaccination information before traveling to Memphis.

CrowdPass does offer on-site testing, Davis said. It would have been a great layer of safety, “but that was just an order of magnitude more expensive, and not something we could afford.” The conference also didn’t require attendees to report positive COVID-19 tests, though people were encouraged to stay home if they felt sick before the conference.

Communication and control

In the U.S.’s current COVID-19 environment, with rapidly-spreading variants and limited safety measures in most places, having an entirely COVID-free event is not really possible, Davis said. “What we did want to do is try and mitigate as much as possible in the spaces that we could control,” she explained.

“Spaces of control” included vaccine verification before the event, required masks in the conference center, and prohibiting eating or drinking during sessions so that attendees stayed masked in those settings. Outside of the official event—in spaces like hotel elevators or nearby bars—the conference organizers had less control.

But the safety policies for official events made it easier for attendees of varying COVID-19 risk comfort levels to participate. Making the conference broadly accessible was a priority for organizers, Davis said, as was providing safety information well in advance.

“We tried to be very thorough, very clear, communicate early, and to really manage expectations,” she said. “We wanted someone to know, when they registered, exactly the kinds of precautions that we would be taking as a conference, and what would be expected of them as an attendee, and to really underlie it with the ‘why.’”

Organizers aimed to clearly convey why this conference was taking COVID-19 safety so seriously: to help keep the community safe so that a wide group of people could participate. “We are so lucky as a community to be able to even ponder getting back together in person after two and a half horrible years, that we really owe it to each other, to be as thoughtful as possible,” Davis said.

Overall, the communication strategy seemed effective: throughout the conference, Davis had to remind “exactly one person” to put a mask on, she said. It probably helped that many people attending the meeting had reported on COVID-19, or at least had closely followed pandemic news in their communities.

“It was very heartening to see the level of, not just compliance with the COVID policies, but really the embracing of and the appreciation for them,” Davis said. Regardless of personal risk, everyone followed the conference policies.

COVID-19 safety as a statement of values

When I posted about the Science Writers conference’s COVID-19 safety policies on Twitter, one commenter pointed out that this meeting had “more precautions than some medical conferences.”

I asked Davis for her thoughts on this comment, as well as how the safety measures on display at the conference showed NASW and CASW’s organizational values. “Not being a medical professional myself, but being someone who organizes conferences, I’m really proud of the values that we were able to bring forward and really proud of our community for complying with them, if not embracing them,” she said. She acknowledged, however, that as a relatively small conference, Science Writers might have been able to prioritize safety in a way that would’ve been more challenging for a bigger event. 

Our conversation ended with a few other tips for organizers of large events:

  • Make COVID-19 safety “a continuing part of the conversation,” not just a “box that you need to tick off.” Organizers should keep an eye on the evolving COVID-19 landscape and be prepared to adjust their policies if needed.
  • Think about accessibility tradeoffs, such as when and for whom masks should be required. For example, Science Writers allowed speakers to take off their masks while at a distance from audience members so that people could read their lips and see facial signals if needed.
  • Take note of any tricky situations that come up and plan for the next year, so that safety measures and communications can continuously improve over time.
  • Put your COVID-19 policies online! Davis and other organizers found it helpful to look at public safety policies from other organizations. “Someone will find the experiences you’ve had helpful in craft crafting their own event, even if it’s much, much smaller than yours,” she said.

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