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WordCamp Birmingham Updates COVID-19 Protocols Amid Omicron Surge, WordCamp Europe Still Planning for In-Person Event

WordCamp organizers are responding to community concerns this week, as the more highly transmissible Omicron variant surges in many locations around the world. With WordCamp Birmingham less than a month away, the event’s COVID precautions came under greater scrutiny this week, as organizers work to adapt to the changing pandemic landscape.

Yesterday, the event’s masking policy stated “Masks are required for entry and preferred throughout the event,” setting off a heated conversation on Twitter.

WordCamp Birmingham has since updated its COVID-19 safety protocols to require masks inside the venue except when eating or drinking:

  • Stay at home if you feel even a tiny bit sick.
  • Temperature checks for entry on both days.
  • Masks will be required while inside our venue except when actively eating or drinking.

Attendees are also required to be vaccinated, or have recovered from COVID-19 within the last 3 months, or have recently tested negative. It doesn’t state any specific timeframe for having tested negative.

“Our original masking recommendations were published prior to Omicron really taking hold and were based on our local laws, local health regulations, our venue’s input, and direction from WordPress Community Support,” WordCamp Birmingham lead organizer Ryan Marks said. “Since Omicron has become more prevalent, we are monitoring the situation and have evolved our guidelines as a result.”

In what seemed to be an attempt to woo vaccine-hesitant Americans, the CDC removed indoor masking requirements for those who were fully vaccinated in May 2021, when vaccines were working well. Since that time, coronavirus variants have emerged that evade both vaccine and virus-induced immunity. However, many gatherings and indoor event organizers have been slow to change their COVID-19 protocols in response to the latest developments.

WordCamp Europe tweeted an update recognizing the recent discussions and changeable nature of the current threat, linking to a post on COVID planning from November 2021.

Nilo Velez, one of the lead organizers for WordCamp Seville, which took place in mid-December 2021, responded to WCEU organizers with some advice.

“I’ve been organizing in-person events during the last few months (including WordCamp Sevilla, with zero positives so far),” Velez said. “My top two take aways: 1) Airflow is your friend: plan for well-ventilated spaces and use CO2 meters on high people concentration areas.

“2) Enforce the use of face masks indoors, always. Enforce as in ‘Put a f*cking mask on or go home’ Excessive? State of the Word proves otherwise.”

Velez referenced the recent incident at the State of the Word 2021 event where attendees were not required to wear masks indoors. Multiple attendees reported infections following the event, which generated exposure notices for all in attendance. Attendees were left to make their own choices regarding indoor masking, and the resulting lack of masks was alarming to many onlookers as Omicron was spreading rapidly through New York City. Prospective attendees for future in-person WordCamps shared their reservations about the lax protocols on Twitter and said they are reconsidering WordCamps as a result.

“In my opinion, masks are not a choice but a must,” Velez told the Tavern. “In Seville, the precautions we took were simple:

  • Absolutely everyone was required to (correctly) wear a mask when indoors. That included, organizers, sponsors, staff… even the catering workers. The only exception were the speakers and only on stage.
  • No food or drinks were allowed indoors. If you wanted to have a coffee or smoke, you had to get outside
  • The WHO advises 11 square meters of air per person. We had only 100 attendees on a huge room to get 20 square meters per person.
  • We had a very short schedule, only 5 talks with long (outdoor) breaks every hour

Velez said his team had a streaming option for those who aren’t ready for in-person WordCamps and they were ready to switch to an entirely online event if necessary.

“We also have had three in-person meetups with no reported cases so far,” Velez said. “Weather helps a lot. Today at noon (5th of January) we were at 20ºC (68ºC). That allows you to stay indoors only during the talks and have all the social activities outside.”

WordCamp Birmingham attendees have posted about how excited they are to attend the event, no matter what the protocols, after two years away from their WordPress friends. On the other hand, there are others who hold the opinion that organizing any kind of in-person event at this time while, hospitals are becoming overwhelmed, is premature and irresponsible.

After speaking with WordCamp Europe’s lead organizers this morning, they are closely monitoring the situation and believe that a safe in-person event is still possible.

“WordCamp Seville was a successful and safe event,” co-organizer Bernhard Kau said. “Some of our organizers went there. Also, the Web Summit in Lisbon with more than 42,000 had excellent measures. Those are events we see as  examples.”

Organizers are eager to host the first in-person WordCamp Europe in three years but are willing to move to alternatives if new pandemic threats emerge in the next five months.

“At the moment our plan is to go for an in-person event but there will always be a plan B or C,” WCEU Public Relations team leader Evangelia Pappa said. “We wouldn’t want people to get in danger in any way. These people are our friends and family. They’re not just attendees or sponsors, speakers, volunteers. Keeping safe means also keeping our beloved safe when we get back home.”

Pappa said the team plans to follow all local regulations for in-person events with more than 1,000 attendees in a closed space. The regulations keep changing but for now they are requiring the following:

  1. Proof of vaccination AND proof of negative lab test is mandatory when entering Portugal
  2. Masks are compulsory to enter the venue or remain inside
  3. Maintain the basic guidelines (1.5 m distance, hand sanitizing, ventilate, face mask)

“Since we’re keeping constantly an eye on this, we may enforce other regulations on top of these, but it depends on the gravity of the situation,” Pappa said.

“Our aim is to get back to seeing our people, have a great in-person event, but when everyone goes back home, we’re all safe, our families are safe and we get to remember the WCEU 2022 as an amazing experience.”

WordPress’ Community Team has been discussing new ideas for supporting the safety of in-person events in 2022 and plans to share more in a blog post next week. One safety measure suggested is mandatory masks for all attendees (even in regions that do not have a mask mandate at this time). WordCamp Central has agreed to cover the budget for additional safety measures like free masks and hand sanitization stations. Contributors plan to engage this sensitive topic with a larger discussion next week.