What in the world were the Gridiron Dinner planners thinking?
Here is how not to plan an event during the pandemic.
Last Thursday, the Gridiron Club met in person after two years of not meeting. Everyone remarked that it was great to be back to normal after two-plus years of COVID-19 dominating the conversation around in-person events. The talk about BA.2 seemed to be zoned out. Some thought the ease of getting back together was too good to be true. The good ole days appeared to be back.
Except they weren’t.
After the event, 72 COVID-19 cases and counting surfaced from those who attended the Gridiron Club dinner. The positive individuals revealed a veritable Who’s Who of DC. The afflicted individuals included two Cabinet members, multiple congressmen, numerous aides to high-profile officials, one US Senator, the Mayor of New York, and, to complete the national security threat, the sister of the President.
Instantly everyone questioned how this could happen. Event participants had been checked for the presences of vaccinations, but they were not required to have received any boosters.
Curiously, a recent negative COVID-19 test was not required for entry, even though many locales in DC and elsewhere require them. Masking was not required. The event was crowded by all reports and did not allow social distancing.
The positive cases reflected a combination of symptomatic individuals and the worried souls who saw the torrent of positive cases and obtained their own surveillance COVID-19 testing. The number of total cases may have reflected an undercounting as COVID-19 tests were not mandated in contract tracing efforts for any of the participants. Additionally, the real damage done by this event has not been fully understood, as a multitude of contacts exposed to the positive cases from the event is virtually incalculable in the DC world of nonstop meetings and dinners – which went on as usual after the event. The Speaker of the House did not attend the event, but tested positive after the event and may have had an exposure from an attendee.
There were many negative consequences to the ill-fated Gridiron dinner. Further trust was eroded in the government and its version of public health rules. People became more confused as to whether events should go on as scheduled. Others wondered how little attention could have been paid to the entry of an event with so many high-profile people. Frighteningly, others concluded erroneously that vaccinations were useless since they did not prevent any cases (although they undoubtedly did prevent some hospitalizations in the older population).
The event devastated the brand of the Gridiron Club, which will be forever remembered as a pandemic punchline. The name will represent the hubris of DC gone awry and the incompetence of insufficiently screened group planning. The significant role of the Gridiron Club as a charitable organization has largely been forgotten.
A Call to Action for Event Planners: COVID-19 is Not Over
The first obvious lesson from the Gridiron super-spreader event was that COVID-19 is not over. Also evident was that simple vaccination checks were insufficient for the security of an important event.
Anyone planning or attending crowded gatherings should be very hesitant to rely solely on the original COVID-19 vaccine to keep the event fully safe.
More strict guidance would be needed to diminish business risk and should include potentially boosters or additional COVID-19 tests before and after the event.
Organizations should not have to experience the DC debacle before they improve their own processes. Instead, smart precautions considering the characteristics of the event should be considered when planning any such larger gatherings. The world of managing events is simply more complicated now.
What should the density / attendee volume be for the event?
What is the local infection rate and the specific type of vaccinations required / mandates?
How will I ensure attendees’ vaccines are valid/real (not faked) for attendees?
How will I validate attendee vaccines from across international locations?
How will I turn around the validations quickly enough to grant timely entrance to the event?
How will I deliver access passes to attendees, once vaccines are validated?
What’s my backup plan if something goes wrong – tech issues, for example – in validating vaccines on-site?
What is our staff’s liability for vaccine attestation and validation?
Events can be done safely during this pandemic. However, a laissez-faire approach in high-risk settings will not be the answer for the foreseeable future.