With constantly changing guidelines and inconsistent government mandates, handling Covid testing and vaccination requirements at live events is a complex challenge fraught with potential legal minefields. Here’s what veteran event planners and legal experts recommend.
With all the uncertainty caused by emerging Covid variants, constantly shifting CDC recommendations and divergent government mandates, particularly in the U.S., it can be a challenge for event managers to determine what practices to follow. Event safety is a top priority, but are there any liability issues to keep in mind?
Just how challenging the current situation is from both ethical and legal standpoints were hot topics at the recent Techsytalk Global forum. Top discussions included Are In-Person Events Covid Safe? and Legal Issues Returning to Live Events, respectively led by veteran event manager Adrian Segar and meetings industry attorney Steve Adelman of Adelman Law Group.
Are In-Person Events Safer Than Daily Activities?
During his Techsytalk, Segar took issue with a recent webinar presented by the global event management company Freeman, which claimed that in-person events are actually safer than many regular daily activities. In particular, Segar cautions against readily accepting reports that could be using flawed data to overstate the safety of live events.
According to Segar, Freeman’s claim rests on a false comparison between a group of people with exceptionally high vaccination rates (those who attend B2B events) and the general public. For a more accurate picture, researchers would need to compare infection rates among two groups of fully vaccinated people: those who attend events, and those who don’t. Anyone eager to learn more can access a detailed overview of Segar’s objections in his recent blogpost.
“My conclusion is that you should be cautious when people say it’s OK to go back,” he said. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t, but there are risks involved. We need to make those risks transparent and provide the safety needed.”
During the talk, Segar also emphasized the importance of holding food and beverage events outside whenever possible and turning away any attendee who refuses to wear a mask.
Providing transparency to attendees and leaving the choice of attendance up to them are two strategies that event manager Lorraine Mariella, president of Eventium, shared during the Techsytalk discussion with Segar.
“It’s important to be transparent and let people know the risks,” she said. “I let them know what best practices need to be followed and I reach out to the venue to see what they are doing, as well as what the city and state are doing. I put all of that information out to the attendees, so they know.”
What she does not do is urge potential attendees to make a decision one way or the other.
“It’s a very personal decision on where they stand and everyone views it differently,” Mariella said, emphasizing that the issue can be quite controversial. “We gather all the information, and it’s your choice if you want to attend. There’s no judgement.”
In line with an increasingly common best practice for addressing the various comfort levels of attendees, Mariella offers attendees color-coded wristbands that let others know how they wish to interact. “Red means stay back; green means I’m willing to shake hands; yellow says I’m not quite sure.”
Given the complexity of shifting and inconsistent regulations regarding Covid protocols, it could make sense to seek support from a third-party company equipped to handle testing and verification of vaccine status.
“It costs money, but it may be worth it,” Segar said. “If I were doing a large corporate event in the U.S., I would definitely do this.”
If no one on the planning team understands the specifics of Covid compliance, then hiring a pandemic compliance advisor to develop best practices is vital. As veteran meeting planner and educator MaryAnne Bobrow of Bowbrow Associates said during an interview with EventMB, it’s especially prudent to hire outside assistance if the event involves testing at the door.
“You have to understand that this information falls under medical privacy, so ensure that you have all the correct information and whomever administers the testing are competent,” she said. “If it is an outside company that does this, do they contact the person or you? What does your contract say with this company as to liability if HIPAA information is disclosed to the wrong persons? In short, if no one on your staff understands the specifics of pandemic compliance, you can hire a pandemic compliance advisor to develop these best practices for you.”
As an alternative to hiring a third party, consider sending a staff member to a pandemic compliance advisor course and then assigning them to make recommendations based on their learnings, Bobrow added.
“This person cannot be the meeting professional in charge of the event production,” she added. “This position will require this person to focus exclusively on Covid protocols before, during and after your event to ensure the safety of participants.”
“The guidance now changes almost daily and that is why someone within your organization needs to be responsible for tracking these new mandates, guidance, and the like and ensure that your organization’s event is within the local health department protocols where the event will be held. What works for one organization will not work for another in another location, so applying practices from another event in another state is as dangerous as doing nothing at all.”
–MARYANNE BOBROW, Bobrow Associates
Bobrow also recommends carefully vetting any company that purports to have expertise in handling Covid management.
“You need to consider whether the person or company who claims to have knowledge and experience can also substantiate their competence and whether they have liability insurance to cover the work they are doing,” she said. “You should also investigate what your company’s liabilities are as well as your exposure.”
When it comes to legal matters involving Covid protocol at meetings, Adelman raised two areas of concern: inconsistent government mandates, particularly among U.S. states, and the difficulty of verifying vaccine status.
“My advice to clients is to require proof of vaccination at the time of registration,” he said. “Get that in writing in your contract. If the vaccines were less available or not as effective, this wouldn’t be a discussion. But there is no barrier to getting a vaccination.”
Is this legal? With the exception of states such as Florida and Texas where governors have blocked vaccine requirements, there is nothing illegal about requiring attendees to show proof of vaccination.
“Unless you are in one of the states where the governor has acted on this, it is perfectly legal to ask someone their vaccination status,” Adelman said. “There is nothing in the Constitution that says you can’t.”
In the case of states such as Florida and Texas, can or should the host organization defy the state law?
“It depends on how eager you are for a fight, if you are willing to deal with the consequences,” Adelman said. “You have to be the judge.”
When it comes to verifying proof of vaccination, Adelman acknowledges that there is always the possibility of someone presenting a fake card. Government authorities are launching new initiatives to track these kinds of forgeries, but event managers and staff should also make an effort to tell the difference.
“Whoever is checking must know what a correct CDC card looks like,” Adelman said. “There’s not much more that you can do.”
Reinforcing the legality of requiring masks and proof of vaccination is the fact that private businesses and venues have the right to set their own rules for entry — at least in places where there are no laws that explicitly say otherwise.
“A business invitee is someone who enters the property of another and is subject to the rules of the property owner or operator. They have the right to ask you to show your vaccine card — it’s like requiring someone to wear a shirt or shoes. There are many examples that support this.”
–STEVE ADELMAN, ADELMAN LAW GROUP
When dealing with an unruly, unvaccinated attendee who is belligerent or who tries to get past a barrier, Adelman said it’s the same as dealing with a trespasser or someone caught stealing.
“In that case, you get someone to get them off the property,” he said. “The law of private property says you get to make the rules — and this applies to your invitees.”
Managing the health and safety rules of an event can be challenging, especially when guidelines are changing so rapidly. While it may be perfectly legal to ask for Covid test results or vaccine status in most states, it is still important to manage the process carefully. For example, when and how do you reveal a positive test result? How can you verify that a vaccine certificate is legitimate?
Event planners already have enough responsibilities without these added burdens, so in many cases, it will make sense to hire external experts in pandemic compliance.