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WordPress Community Team Proposes Stricter COVID-19 Safety Protocols for In-Person Events in 2022

Mounting concerns about loose safety protocols at upcoming WordPress events, and the prevalence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, have prompted the Community Team to be more explicit in its COVID-19 safety guidelines. The team is proposing additional measures previously not required.

Currently, in-person attendees are required to be fully vaccinated, recently tested negative, or recently recovered from COVID-19. Every one of these requirements is vague and open to multiple interpretations. Recent spikes in infection in both vaccinated and unvaccinated populations has caused the Community Team to propose the following:

  • Mandatory masks for all attendees (even in regions that do not have a mask mandate at this time). 
  • More prominent messaging in WordCamp websites, emails, and social media posts about COVID-19 safety guidelines.
  • Mandatory temperature checks for all attendees at the event (if permitted by local authorities).
  • Accessible hand sanitizing stations in the venue.
  • Maintaining social distancing practices during the event (Larger meeting rooms and seating arrangements with good spacing can be a good way to implement this).
  • Having a plan for contact tracing measures in case of infections (can be done using WordCamp registration data, meetups are a bit tricker).

One of the concerns with imposing more mandatory safety measures is enforcement. WordPress events are generally hosted by volunteers who would now need to go beyond simply facilitating an event to being ready to confront and remove those who don’t comply with safety protocols. In a community of people with diverse convictions, what happens if some members decide that WordCamp is a good place to protest pandemic restrictions?

“I appreciate very much the heart behind wanting to keep the community safe, but have significant issue with how this is being proposed, and how it would be enforced, and how it shifts the burden of health and safety to a volunteer team of organizers who are not in any way trained or equipped to handle making medical decisions,” Ben Meredith said.

“Further, there are many jurisdictions where the proposed changes (like a mask mandate) are specifically prohibited by local law or executive order.

“Trying to make a policy from the international level (WordCamp central) that applies fairly and equitably to all local jurisdictions is a fool’s errand. What works in Los Angeles probably wont in Louisiana or Lagos. That’s why organizers are local.”

If the WordPress community is fixed on hosting events at this time, then there are many more responsibilities organizers are now obligated to assume in order to ensure the safety of attendees. Participants in the discussion on the proposal raised dozens of questions about how these new safety measures might be implemented.

“On temp checks, if someone reads high ( they may not even be aware) would we then refund their ticket to the event assuming we are talking a WordCamp?” Laura Byrne asked.

 WordCamp organizer and speaker David Ryan raised questions about masks, will the requirements outline what qualifies as a mask? (“Does a plastic face shield qualify as a mask? Are masks with ventilation valves acceptable? A bandana?”) Does the requirement include speakers while they are speaking? “This should be clear in advance for both speakers and attendees to make informed choices without surprises day-of,” Ryan said.

He also asked if the masking policies extend to other venues, such as the official event hotel and after parties, the way the Code of Conduct applies.

Refunds are another consideration. Will WordCamps refund people who test positive right before the event? Will the event refund if people arrive and are not comfortable or are asked to leave for not complying with the safety measures?

“In addition to these proposed guidelines, I also recommend that we remove our existing guideline of allowing recent-recovered community members from attending a WordPress event since new COVID variants like Omicron are known to cause reinfection,” Automattic-sponsored WordPress Community Wrangler Hari Shanker said in the proposal.

Laura Byrne urged the Community Team to clearly define this guideline.

“We are in for a boatload of trouble with the word ‘recent,’” Byrn said. “In other words, something along the lines of, ‘anyone who has tested positive for COVID may not attend a WordPress event until X days after they are no longer testing positive.’”

Some participants in the discussion see the additional safety measures as an overreach for WordPress events. It’s easier and more straightforward to recommend organizers stick with local requirements for anything related to health safety.

“Surely I’m not the only one thinking that the foundation shouldn’t be setting health guidelines at all?” Cameron Jones said. “Compliance with local regulations should be the only requirement.”

The problem with this is that many locations and regions do not have any kind of precautions in place, due to political differences, or are slow in recognizing emerging threats. Lax local guidelines for large gatherings may leave the WordPress community vulnerable to outbreaks.

“As a WordCamp organizer and speaker, and more personally as a recent cancer survivor and immunocompromised person, State of the Word was a troubling event to observe,” David Ryan said.

“Local legal requirements were met, but not proven event practices that eliminated or greatly-reduced positivity rate at larger gatherings in 2021 compared to the results of SOTW (namely, masks and testing). Planning, day-of and response afterwards didn’t inspire confidence this community was prepared to run safer and inclusive events — so this is an encouraging step towards remedying concerns many have expressed.”

Comments on the proposal are open until January 22, 2022. The Community team plans to assess the feedback and finalize the updated guidelines in time to publish them to the handbook in early February 2022.