Meeting profs across the United States are being tasked with increasingly difficult decisions about requiring and enforcing mask wearing after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suddenly updated guidance for face coverings and physical distancing in Mid-May.

The announcement that “fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing except where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance,” may have been designed to entice people to get vaccinated, but it left event organizers with the task of requiring precautions over and above the measures called for by the government if they had already told attendees they would be part of the protocols or if the venue required masks in common areas. It also begs the question of how meeting staff would verify who is vaccinated and therefore not required to wear a mask.

To make matters even more confusing, not all states and cities are uniformly adopting the CDC’s guidelines. Some already did away with public mask requirements months ago. Texas Governor Greg Abbott threatened to sue cities in the state if they implemented mandatory mask requirements. Others are putting orders in place that supersede the guidelines, extending the requirement for at least a month or more. California’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Mark Ghaly, announced that the requirement to wear a mask when inside public places would go into effect on June 15, when the state officially drops restrictions on businesses and a greater percentage of the population is vaccinated. The indoor mask mandate will remain in effect there for hospitals, nursing homes and shelters, as well as for traveling.

In April, another arm of the federal government, Transportation Security Administration announced that it was extending the face mask requirement for individuals in airport terminals, on planes, trains and buses at least until September 13. “The federal mask requirement throughout the transportation system seeks to minimize the spread of COVID-19 on public transportation,” said Darby LaJoye, senior official performing the duties of the TSA administrator. “Right now, about half of all adults have at least one vaccination shot and masks remain an important tool in defeating this pandemic.”

Big Challenges

Respondents to a recent Smart Meetings survey found that confusion about changing requirements is making meeting professional roles even more difficult. “Not knowing what the future holds vis a vis healthy meeting requirements for face-to-face” was named as one of the biggest challenges they face today.

Chip Rogers, president and CEO of American Hotel & Lodging Association, said the group’s Stay Safe guidelines will still call for hotel employees to wear face coverings indoors, with the ability to relax requirements for guests depending on state and local guidelines.

“Like all Americans, we are excited for a return to normal life, which includes travel. The recent CDC guidelines for vaccinated Americans…was welcome news and should help speed up a much-needed recovery. As an industry, our primary concerns have always been guest and worker safety. Throughout the pandemic our Safe Stay guidelines continued to evolve to align with the current environment and CDC guidelines, and the same will be true as we work to reopen.”

Amy Calvert, CEO of Events Industry Council, stressed the importance of getting protocols right. “We all collectively understand the essential role our industry will play in the global recovery and care deeply for the well-being of our event participants and our workforce. We are also keenly aware of our respective roles as hosts, organizers and participants and our long-standing commitment to duty of care as part of the event experience. The global nature of our industry, combined with the variability of the virus and policies across the globe require that we establish the necessary protocols grounded in science that build both safety and trust.”