Having a Physical In-Person Convention at All
The first question in COVID-19 safety considerations is whether an in-person event should be happening at all, and we’ve had some people ask about why we chose to hold one. Our answer, which is the same for many other cons in our situation, was that we had already committed to hold WisCon 2022 back in 2019 when we signed a contract with the Madison Concourse Hotel. It’s standard practice to sign these hotel contracts several years in advance to reserve the space, and WisCon typically signs ours two to three years out. These contracts specify very high penalties for cancellation, increasing as the date gets closer, with a few strict exceptions. One of those exceptions is an act of government that prevents the event from taking place. In Spring 2020, indoor gatherings were prohibited by local public health ordinance, allowing us to cancel the planned physical WisCon without penalty and instead hold a fully virtual event. In 2021, Dane County (where Madison is located and WisCon is held) still had some restrictions on large gatherings, but it may have been technically possible to hold an event with drastic changes to the format. However, we made it clear to the hotel that we would not be able to fulfill our 2021 obligations under those conditions. Because we have a very good relationship with the hotel, they very graciously did not charge us a penalty for cancellation and proposed a much smaller, non-WisCon event to help generate some revenue.
However, for 2022, there was no superseding ordinance. If we cancelled the event, the contract stipulated that we would owe the hotel much, much more money than WisCon or SF3 has, rendering the organization insolvent and ensuring that there would be no more WisCons ever. So our options were to try to hold the safest in-person WisCon we could— or never have any WisCons again. As it is, we will still owe the hotel a lot of money because the event we were able to have was still much smaller than the WisCon envisioned and expected when the contract was signed in 2019.
But! With very many thanks for your help to #SaveWisCon, between our fundraising and fulfilling a sizable portion of our 2022 obligation, we will remain solvent and have the resources to run another in-person con in 2023. We have specifically — and with much, much patience and grace from the hotel — held off on signing anything for 2023 until we could reasonably guarantee our own solvency and the safety of our members, and also until we saw how things went in 2022 so that we could negotiate for an appropriate size and obligation for WisCon 2023. The WisCon 2022 ConCom, the SF3 Board, and the hotel have been working together to put both WisCon and the hotel in a good position for next year.
COVID-19 Safety Measures for WisCon 2022
- The ConCom instituted a vaccination policy that required all members to be “up to date” on their vaccinations/boosters and show proof before picking up their badges. The registration desk (including vaccine checking) was in a separate room, rather than out in the open on the second floor, to help separate possibly un- or under-vaccinated members from the general con space. There were no exceptions to our vaccine policy, meaning that those who could not be vaccinated (including all children under 5) could not attend in-person. The policy also included contractors and vendors such as our childcare providers, our CART providers, and the dealers in the Dealers’ Room.
- The ConCom instituted a masking policy requiring well-fitting masks in all public WisCon spaces, with unmasking only permissible for necessary sips or bites. As people have different intake needs for food, drink, or meds for their health, safety, and comfort, we trusted our members to follow the spirit of this policy. And, with notably few exceptions that were addressed and corrected without conflict, WisCon members overwhelmingly followed the masking policy in WisCon spaces. We also strongly recommended high-quality medical-grade masks rather than cloth masks or other types of masks, and provided such masks to in-person WisCon members for free at the Info Desk.
- The ConCom, COVID-19 Safety Team, and Communications Committee encouraged members to test as much as they were able before, during, and after the con, and provided free rapid testing kits as well as information on where to obtain rapid testing kits and PCR tests locally.
- The ConCom instituted a 600-member in-person attendance cap (down from our typical 800-900 attendance) to ensure that WisCon-exclusive spaces were less crowded. However, this came with tradeoffs in regards to other hotel guests, not subject to our policies, taking up more of the non-WisCon-exclusive spaces. Please see our final case report and takeaways (below) for additional related considerations. Our final in-person attendance was approximately 407 people.
- The hotel agreed to a masking policy for hotel employees while in WisCon event spaces.
- The day before WisCon started, the hotel changed out all of its air filters on the 6th floor, where a number of WisCon spaces such as ConSuite, Kids’ Programming, Teen Programming, and Parties were.
- The Parties policy was changed such that no food, and only non-alcoholic beverages, could be served. As Parties are WisCon spaces, masking was still required between sips.
- The ConSuite underwent a complete change of format, removing the buffet-style service of meals cooked by volunteers. Only individually pre-packaged food was served, and meal vouchers were provided so members who needed them could obtain free hot meals at the hotel or a nearby restaurant following their own safety needs and comfort levels. We also had designated rooms for eating for those who were not staying in the hotel and could not eat in their rooms.
- The Dessert Salon (which includes the Guest of Honor speeches) was changed to a takeaway format, with no eating at the salon itself during the speeches and the desserts served afterwards in containers. Dessert Salon seating was changed to a reduced and spread out auditorium format developed by the hotel (rather than seating people close together at round tables for eating and talking). The Dessert Salon ticket system for both seating and serving was modified to discourage crowding as people waited to be seated or served. The Dessert Salon was also streamed, and members attending in person who did not wish to be in the ballroom but still wanted a dessert could purchase a ticket, watch from wherever they felt comfortable, and come get a dessert after the event was over.
- In all programming spaces, we requested and the hotel developed individual room layouts such that seating was reduced and spread out.
- The 2022 Con Co-Chairs asked for and the SF3 Board approved a budget of $7,870 for the COVID-19 Safety Team; not all of these funds were used.
- The COVID-19 Safety Team provided free N95 masks, hand sanitizer, and rapid testing kits to in-person WisCon members.
- The COVID-19 Safety Team developed a reporting and contact tracing form for anyone who tested positive or was experiencing symptoms, including space for members to specify their locations and activities while at the con. The COVID-19 Safety Team sent emails with all shareable details of these reports twice a day (if new cases had been reported) as well as posting notifications in the WisCon Discord. The emails included information on local healthcare resources and were timed so that members would have the most up to date information in the morning and around mid-afternoon so they could make decisions regarding their morning/daytime or evening activities based on the latest data. The COVID-19 Safety Team had a member dedicated specifically to the task of communication, compiling and disseminating this information.
- The COVID-19 Safety Team recruited at-con volunteers to help provide quarantining or isolating WisCon members with supplies such as food, testing kits, and medication without those members having to leave their rooms.
- The COVID-19 Safety Team purchased five LEVOIT Core 400S commercial air purifiers to place in key locations around WisCon spaces.
- The COVID-19 Safety Team purchased materials for 35 Corsi–Rosenthal Boxes to supplement the commercial air purifiers and the hotel’s HVAC system. The day before WisCon started, ConCom members, COVID-19 Safety Team members, and at-con volunteers constructed the boxes. Two fans were damaged in transit, so overall 33 functional Corsi-Rosenthal Boxes were constructed and deployed. Between the Corsi-Rosenthal Boxes and the commercial air purifiers, all public WisCon spaces such as rooms with programming items or administrative activities had at least one kind of supplemental air purification, with larger spaces having multiple boxes and/or purifiers. WisCon then retained 15 of the Corsi-Rosenthal Boxes for reuse (as many as would fit in our storage unit) and offered the rest for sale for a suggested donation of $20.
- The Con Co-Chairs, the COVID-19 Safety Team, and the Online Con department developed a plan for pivoting to an entirely online event in the middle of the convention if we saw either a notable outbreak among in-person WisCon members or extremely high rates in Madison and Dane County. This plan was still contingent on us having started with a physical event in the first place due to the contract with the hotel, and included measures from multiple departments earlier in the process, such as Panels Programming asking all participants if they were comfortable being streamed during the panels matching and scheduling phases.
- And, of course, we did our best to offer hybrid programming, including streaming of Guest of Honor speeches and three fully online programming tracks, so that members, whether in-person or online, could participate from their homes or hotel rooms.
Final COVID-19 Case Report and Takeaways
Two weeks out from the end of the convention, we are stopping our case tracking efforts. While it’s impossible to say with any certainty whether some members arrived sick, contracted COVID-19 during travel to/from, or contracted COVID-19 at the con, we can, with much gratitude, report that we had a total reported count of 13 cases including one possible false positive, or 3% of our estimated 407 in-person attendance. That’s just about miraculous.
We want to especially extend our thanks to those who tested positive very soon after arriving and took the necessary measures to take care of themselves and keep those around them safe, up to and including leaving the convention entirely. We know it must have been so gut-wrenching and disappointing. Thank you.
Our COVID-19 reporting was sent directly to all members who had purchased an in-person membership, and sometimes included additional, voluntarily disclosed information such as names. An anonymized record of all 13 reported cases, including the possible false positive and location information, is available publicly at the link above.
Of the reported cases, a number cluster around the Governor’s Club Lounge, or the Governor’s Club Library. The Governor’s Club refers to floors 12 and 14 of the hotel, which require a specially coded room keycard to access. The Lounge is an open service bar located on the 12th floor that also serves breakfast, evening appetizers, and late night desserts, and requires the same keycard to access. (Note that this is a separate space from The Bar, which is a publicly accessible bar on the ground floor of the hotel.) The Library is a smaller room adjacent to the Lounge that serves tea and coffee, also requiring the same keycard. The Library and Lounge share a wall that has small decorative openings, meaning that the two rooms are not sealed off from one another and share some amount of air exchange, especially at the seating close by the wall on either side. While both of these spaces are popular with WisCon members, they are not WisCon-exclusive spaces subject to our masking and vaccination policies. In addition, other hotel guests were there, often taking different or no COVID-19 safety precautions, and many hotel guests staying on these floors (WisCon members or otherwise) bring other guests into these spaces.
In our (manifold) COVID-19 preparations and pre-con communications, we tried to stress that, because we expected to fill less of the hotel, there would be more non-WisCon guests at the hotel, not subject to our policies. We also can’t control what WisCon members, or any hotel guests, do in public spaces such as the lobby, non-WisCon-exclusive semipublic spaces such as the Governor’s Lounge, or private spaces such as individual guest rooms. Safety department volunteers, all three Con Co-Chairs, and additional ConCom members (as available) circulated in WisCon-exclusive spaces throughout the con and reminded members of our policies when necessary (in addition to members reminding each other), but WisCon had no power to do that in spaces not exclusive to WisCon, or in private spaces. This is a safety consideration that every in-person event, and every in-person event attendee, will have to negotiate for themselves.
Finally, one last wrench in the works: The federal mask mandate for air travel was repealed very shortly before WisCon 2022. This changed many people’s personal safety calculus on travel, and we informally heard from some registered members that they were not attending in person, as well as receiving some last-minute requests to change from an in-person membership to the cheaper online membership (in-person memberships include all online membership access). This made it hard to estimate our total in-person or online attendance in the end. However, this also caused a last-minute wave of cancellations or no-shows for reservations at the hotel. This can unfortunately result in financial hardship, as the rooms within the block we reserve for WisCon every year come at a specifically negotiated lower rate. Because of these specific terms, rooms in our reduced-rate block have a more stringent 14-day cancellation policy rather than the 24-hour cancellation policy on general reservations. This caused some members who planned to join us in person, but ultimately could not, to still be charged for the first night of their planned stay. The best we can do, and what we recommend for other events, is to very clearly communicate the specific policies and timelines for their event’s hotel(s) so attendees and members can make informed choices.
Ultimately, we wish there had been zero cases, that no one arrived sick, got sick during travel, or got sick while in Madison for WisCon. But we think everyone who works to put on WisCon — which specifically includes all our members, who *ARE* the people who make everything from panels to chairing possible — did an amazing job doing our best to keep each other safe.
Thank you all for your hard work, your communication, and your care.