There are positive reports regarding COVID numbers, with 47 states counting transmission rates at less than 1 percent as of late October, and based on meeting planner sentiment voiced in the latest PULSE survey, the forecast for 2022 is for a strong comeback. As corporations and associations continue to get back to business, many meeting professionals are asking questions about how to proceed and what protocols make sense for their groups. In some places, like Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans, savvy sales and marketing teams are touting high vaccination rates among hotel staff and within destinations to attract safety-minded meetings.

Here are some common questions, and answers, to consider.

Can I require vaccines for attendees? Why would an organization consider vaccination requirements for a meeting?

Planners are asking about vaccines for attendees because, in short, the CDC recommends that most Americans get vaccinated. The numbers show that being vaccinated can prevent people from becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, so the line of questioning begins with data and logic, although the answers are not that simple.

  • The CDC’s data shows that not fully vaccinated people are over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 and over 10 times more likely to die from it. Not fully vaccinated people are also five times more likely to catch COVID-19 than vaccinated people. Vaccinated people are also less likely to suffer from severe illness, including hospitalization and death.
  • The CDC data also shows that fully vaccinated people can still contract the virus (called a breakthrough case), and there is a chance they can also spread the virus. In late August, the CDC announced fully vaccinated people with breakthrough infections from the Delta variant can spread the virus to others, making the situation more complex.
  • If a meeting is considering requiring vaccine proof or a negative COVID test 72 hours prior to meeting attendance, it is not safe to assume that there cannot be transmission of the virus during the meeting. Additional safety protocols may still be considered, such as required testing for all attendees.

Which events have required vaccine proof or testing recently?

One example of an event with vaccine requirements was the recent IPW travel industry meeting in Las Vegas, put on by U.S. Travel Association, which allowed attendees the option for either vaccine proof or proof of a negative PCR test 72 hours prior to arrival, and hosted more than 2,600 attendees from 52 countries.

For meetings with international travelers, the attendees will already be meeting vaccination protocols, as the recent U.S. mandate requires all international travelers over the age of 18, with very few exceptions, must be vaccinated to enter the country, with doors opening Nov. 8.

What is public sentiment?

This answer can vary by when and who was surveyed. In an industry survey of 1,000 meeting attendees conducted Aug. 13 to Sept. 7 by global marketing firm MMGY Travel Intelligence, seven in 10 attendees stated they were more likely to attend an in-person event if proof of vaccination and/or COVID tests were required. Although in a follow-up PULSE survey of meeting planners, fewer than half were considering implementing those protocols at upcoming meetings.

What does the CDC recommend right now? And specifically for meetings and events?

The CDC, as of Oct. 25, is recommending masks for people age 2 and older who are not vaccinated, for those with weakened immune systems, or for indoor gatherings in areas of high or substantial COVID-19 transmission, which it reports on through an online tracker. Masks are also recommended for public transportation of all forms (planes, trains, buses) as well as their hubs like airports and train stations.

The CDC recommendations for large events and gatherings, which were last updated on Sept. 24, include:

  • Event planners might choose to verify COVID-19 vaccination status at the time of ticket sales or entry to an event. Organizers must obey all applicable local, state, tribal, and territorial laws, regulations and rules as they consider whether to confirm COVID-19 vaccination status. 
  • Organizers may consider testing all unvaccinated attendees and staff for the virus that causes COVID-19 (or requiring proof of a negative viral test 1-3 days before the event) before allowing them to enter an event. Such entry testing at event venues could identify infected people and reduce risk of person-to-person transmission.
    • Organizers may consider exempting fully vaccinated attendees and staff from this screening testing requirement, as the risk of fully vaccinated individuals being infected is significantly reduced.
    • Entry testing should be implemented in combination with other preventive measures (such as physical distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, and routine cleaning and disinfecting).
  • People who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, including children under the age of 12, should use prevention strategies, such as wearing masks, physical distancing, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette. 
  • Event organizers can decide to implement multiple layered prevention strategies at an event or gathering that will include people who are fully vaccinated and people who are not fully vaccinated in order to protect all staff and attendees.
  • In areas of substantial to high transmission, CDC does recommend conducting health checks, such as temperature screening or checking symptoms of staff and attendees safely and respectfully, in accordance with any applicable privacy laws and regulations.

In addition, the CDC does not provide specific numbers, including maximum or minimum numbers, of attendees for events and gatherings. The suggestion is for event organizers to work with local public health officials and follow applicable local laws and regulations. Event organizers should also monitor levels of community transmission and local COVID-19 vaccination coverage.

What cities have additional vaccine requirements?

The COVID health protocols in cities and states around the country continually change making it a challenge for planners to keep track. Some state governors have implemented mandates about vaccines that affect the entire state, while other states are allowing cities and counties to implement their own standards. Very few cities are requiring vaccines for entry to indoor dining and entertainment, and some that have are next door to smaller cities that are not enforcing a vaccine mandate.

New York City was the first city in the country to announce vaccine mandates without a testing option for entry into restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters and other indoor venues, though neighboring areas such as Long Island are not enforcing mandates. Other major cities and counties have followed New York’s lead, but hosting meetings in these cities and surrounding areas requires some research as the mandates change. The current list of major cities with vaccine mandates includes the following as of Oct. 27:

New York City: People 12 and older are required to show identification and proof they have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to enter many indoor establishments including indoor restaurants, banquet rooms, bars and nightclubs and grocery stores with indoor dining. The mandate also is in place for indoor fitness centers and indoor entertainment including museums, aquariums and zoos, theaters, concert venues, convention centers, exhibition halls, and meeting and event spaces.

California: Effective Sept. 20, California requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend indoor events with 1,000 people or more, and outdoor events with 10,000 people or more. Some California cities have additional requirements.

San Francisco: Proof of full vaccination is required at San Francisco bars, restaurants, nightclubs, live music venues and gyms, and there is no testing option. The mandate went into effect Aug. 20, and also includes large indoor events. Some other Bay Area cities such as Berkeley require proof of vaccination for indoor dining and entertainment, while Oakland and San Jose do not.

Los Angeles: Los Angeles began implementing a phased vaccine mandate on Oct. 7. Patrons must be partially vaccinated to enter indoor restaurants, wineries, bars, breweries and nightclubs. On Oct. 7, Los Angeles County also began requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for major events with 10,000 or more people. The policy affects Universal Studios Hollywood’s outdoor events since the capacity is more than 10,000. Indoor events with at least 1,000 attendees must also abide by these rules.

Seattle: King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, as of Oct. 25 is requiring full vaccination or a negative COVID test taken 72 hours before entering indoor establishments including restaurants, bars and non-essential indoor businesses, as well as conventions. Proof of vaccination or negative test is also mandated for outdoor events with more than 500 people.

New Orleans: Anyone 12 years of age and older must provide proof of at least one dose of an approved COVID vaccine or negative PCR test within 72 hours of entering indoor restaurants, bars, breweries and distilleries, gyms and fitness centers, and concerts, stadiums, casinos, and other indoor entertainment. The rule also is in place for indoor hotel ballrooms, event venues and reception halls, as well as outdoor events of more than 500 people if total attendance is more than 50 percent of the outdoor venue’s capacity. 

Honolulu: Hawaii is requiring proof of vaccination or negative PCR test taken 48 hours in advance for incoming travelers. Honolulu is requiring proof of full vaccination or negative test for entertainment, recreational, and food-service establishments. Also, some Hawaiian hotels and resorts are implementing vaccine mandates as well.

Colorado: Counties in Colorado can set their own COVID-19 measures. Currently, Denver has no capacity limits or restrictions on outdoor events. Indoor events with more than 2,000 people must be approved by the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. Colorado’s Vail ski resorts are requiring guests age 12 or older this winter season to be fully vaccinated to eat at the indoor restaurants or quick service cafeterias. The ski school also requires attendees at least 12 years old to be fully vaccinated.

What cities have mask requirements?

Rules regarding masks in public are even more difficult to follow since states, cities and counties can each make their own mandates. The CDC does recommend that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas of high rates of COVID transmission.

Several large cities and counties reinstated local mask orders as the Delta variant began to spread earlier this year, but a number of states, including Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Montana, Tennessee and Texas, have moved via legislation or executive action to prevent local governments and school districts from enforcing mask mandates.

As of the latest count, seven states — Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington — require most people to wear masks in indoor public places, whether or not they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia have similar orders in place.

Nevada’s mask mandate includes indoor public spaces in Las Vegas, including casinos. Masks are not required at events with more than 4,000 people if all are vaccinated. Illinois may lift some restrictions by the holidays but for now, the state, including Chicago, is enforcing mask mandates.

Oregon also requires masks in public settings outdoors. Meanwhile, Washington State only requires masks for outdoor events attended by 500 or more people. California, Connecticut and New York have indoor mask mandates that extend only to the unvaccinated, as does Rhode Island.

State rules can vary by city or county. In California, several large cities have local indoor mask mandates covering everyone, regardless of vaccination status, including Los Angeles County, which also requires masks at large outdoor events. Sacramento County and many Bay Area counties also require indoor masks regardless of vaccination status, though San Francisco and Marin recently relaxed their restrictions starting Oct. 15, allowing vaccinated people to go unmasked in some indoor settings, such as offices and gyms, when fewer than 100 people are present.

Some other states have mixed mandate protocols, such as North Carolina, where the mask mandate was lifted earlier this year, but the city of Raleigh and the counties that are home to Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro and Asheville are requiring masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

In Pennsylvania, the only city with a mask mandate is Philadelphia, unless proof of vaccination is required. Masks in the city are also required at non-seated outdoor events with more than 1,000 people.

Georgia does not have a mask mandate, but Atlanta, Decatur and Athens are enforcing mask mandates. Meanwhile, Baltimore has a mask mandate in place though Maryland does not, and in Nebraska, only the city of Lincoln has a mask mandate.

In Wisconsin, Madison is the only city with a mask mandate, and Columbus has a mask mandate, though the rest of Ohio does not. Teton County in Wyoming has a mask mandate, as well.

Similarly, In Alaska, the state does not require masks, but in its capital of Juneau, masks must be worn indoors by everyone regardless of vaccination status. Indoor gatherings are limited to 20 people unless everyone is fully vaccinated when there are no capacity limits.

What states do not have any additional protocols or requirements?

Some states have resisted imposing any COVID requirements, such as Florida, which has been in the news cycle for its contentious city versus state rules. The state recommends but has not required face coverings for the general public. A handful of cities and large counties, including Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Hillsborough – home to Tampa -- had mask requirements, but Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order May 3 that barred local governments and school systems from imposing COVID-19 restrictions, including mask rules.

Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott also not only imposed legislation banning mask mandates but vaccine mandates as well. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey also banned vaccine passports and mask mandates, and also authorized in March all businesses would resume normal operations without restrictions.

Other states with no mandates or event size restrictions include Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Can I inquire about hotel staff being vaccinated?

Yes, but be prepared for mixed answers. Some hotels are leveraging local data and extra precautions--such as a high vaccination rate in their city, mask requirements in their city, or high vaccination rates among hotel staff--to planners looking for additional factors to put their attendees' minds at ease. Identifying locations and hotels with criteria that suit a groups' mindset and approach--whatever that may be--can allow for easy assimilation for both the hotel staff and the group. 

At Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans, Director of Sales & Marketing Kent Wasmuth is leveraging positive news to attract concerned planners. 

" Our Hotel Monteleone associate vaccination rate is at 98% which is great," he said, adding that as of Oc. 15, in the City of New Orleans, 75% of the population has been fully vaccinated. "Our commitment to providing a safe meeting environment is a top priority for our staff."