A question on the minds of many executives at scientific and scholarly societies is whether it will be possible to hold a large in-person meeting (or any gathering over a hundred people) before a vaccine or drug is widely available or the pandemic otherwise subsides. Conference organizers with meetings in the spring of 2020 (including the Society for Scholarly Publishing, the publisher of The Scholarly Kitchen) have been forced to either cancel events or scramble to move meetings to an online format in the wake of the rapidly moving public health situation. Those with events further out on the calendar, have the luxury of more time to prepare for alternative scenarios.
While governments around the world are developing plans to ease restrictions and reboot as much economic activity as possible without triggering a resurgence of COVID-19 infections, the return of large events like arena sports, concerts, and conferences (especially international conferences) is surely last on the list of economic activities to be restarted. The governor of California, for example, outlined a 4 stage plan for reopening the the world’s 5th largest economy yesterday; sporting events, concerts, and conferences are dead last (Stage 4), “once therapeutics have been delivered.” It is one thing to reopen a bookstore, barbershop, boutique, school, or restaurant. It is another thing entirely to bring thousands (or tens of thousands) of people — people who live in different cities and regions of the world — together in the same venue. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) explored this issue as it pertains to spectator sports, but the issues are largely the same for academic conferences:
The prevalence of cases is unlikely to sink low enough by this fall to host a football game without the high risk of someone infected being in the crowd. The more people in the crowd, the greater the chance that at least one is infected, and the more people the infected will be in contact with. All it takes is one game to trigger a local outbreak.