Social Distancing Events: How to Get Attendees to Follow the Rules

Last updated: 07-30-2020

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Social Distancing Events: How to Get Attendees to Follow the Rules

As hybrid and in-person events return, the conversation has now turned to physical distancing and other risk-mitigation efforts like masks and face shields. The early results suggest that universal compliance with social distancing rules might be an unrealistic expectation. 

There is plenty of online footage that shows unmasked crowds gathering in Las Vegas casinos, and even at carefully managed events like Reconnect2020 in Vancouver, guests reportedly drifted from the 6-foot rule.

In this article, we consider a variety of possible reasons behind this apparent reluctance to comply with physical distancing guidelines, and we discuss the implications for risk management in the role of event planning.

Will your attendees follow the rules? Join us for The Future of the Event Industry on July 30 to hear from experts in epidemiology, event security, and crisis communication as we explore what it will take to run live events safely.

It might seem like self-indulgent speculation to wonder why attendees sometimes neglect physical distancing rules, but the motivations behind this behavior could have substantial implications for your event’s risk-management strategies.

For example, if attendees are unclear about how the rules apply in some situations, it’s possible that the event’s guidelines need to be more specific. As we recently reported in Your Guide to Reopening Events by States and Countries, official guidelines can vary widely from region to region, and the WHO has repeatedly shifted gears on its social distancing advice.

It’s up to event planners to communicate their expectations clearly to all attendees, especially when participants are travelling across national or state borders.

Some planners, however, are actually encouraging attendees to violate the CDC’s social distancing rules altogether by imposing a color-coded system of bracelets that people wear to designate their comfort level with physical contact. Green indicates total comfort (hugs and handshakes); yellow indicates moderate comfort (elbows only); red indicates zero comfort and a strict adherence to social distancing. Where almost everyone needs to follow social distancing rules for them to be effective, this traffic light-inspired system has the potential to create a social pressure to abandon them.

In a seated performance, the furniture placement itself provides a physical reminder of distancing guidelines. On the other hand, the rules may be a little less obvious at a networking event that promotes mingling. Do attendees need to be aware of distance from a 360° perspective, or should they just focus on anyone in direct face-to-face contact?

Duration is another consideration. Most research suggests that brief contact with people walking by outdoors is not a major transmission risk; given this knowledge, some guests might consider 10 or 15 minutes to be brief contact, and then extend the context to an indoor setting. However, some health departments use 10 minutes of contact as the minimum threshold for transmission risk.

To help address any ambiguity, event planners might consider putting together a list of tips for managing different scenarios.

With that said, attendees who believe that the threat is overblown might be inclined to ignore the rules even when they are crystal clear. This explanation for attendee behavior puts the event planner in a more difficult position: emphasizing the ever-present risk of transmission could undermine the organizer’s primary goal of reassuring attendees that their event is safe.

When addressing a denialist audience, the best strategy may be to emphasize that your event ultimately has to answer to regulatory authorities, and that lockdowns could be re-imposed if physical distancing rules are flagrantly broken. If event planners can’t demonstrate that their attendees consistently follow physical distancing guidelines, they might be forced to cancel future events.

One final explanation for attendee non-compliance could be the most difficult of all to address: it may simply be human nature to forget physical distancing rules in a social setting, at least until people become more habituated to new social norms. While notions of personal space vary from culture to culture, people rarely stand more than four feet apart when chatting.

Tahira Endean (CMP), who recently attended Vancouver’s Reconnect2020, provided us with some insights on why fellow attendees seemed to drift from physical distancing rules. While she noted that Vancouver’s low case numbers and the event’s multiple safety measures helped create an atmosphere of relative security, she also emphasized the role of social norms:

“[W]hile we started out six feet apart from each other, we did not maintain that very well. We did not shake hands or hug, but with music playing as background and knowing most people and feeling that they too 'must' be safe like us leading up to this big night out meant we drifted to two, three, or four feet apart and found ourselves course-correcting.

It was about respecting the distance in concept, but finding it very difficult in reality as six feet is not natural social distancing and it is hard to hear people or to feel you are having a more intimate conversation[...It’s h]uman nature.”

Even when trying to respect the rules, attendees may occasionally fall into old patterns of behavior, especially in situations that feel familiar. The threat of COVID-19 is invisible, and it is easy to be lulled into a sense of security when surrounded by friendly faces.

Tahira also explained that even people who are not explicitly opposed to using masks might be reluctant to wear them in certain scenarios. Speaking of her experience at Reconnect2020, she added,“The majority of the guests did not wear masks[...] Are we anti-mask? No.” Aside from the standard complaint that masks are uncomfortable, she pointed to “being with people we know on some level and being in a province that has responded well to the rules” as reasons for guests going mask-free. While we could again point to human nature, how much risk participants are willing to accept before wearing a mask would undoubtedly vary from culture to culture. In many Asian countries, it is commonplace to wear masks as a countermeasure against even modest risks. It may just be a question of adjusting.

Here are some strategies that event planners can consider to help manage the risks presented by this phenomenon:

As a final step, consider incorporating some acknowledgement of personal responsibility in whatever waivers you’ve created to address transmission risk. Be clear about where you’re accountable, and where you’re not. To protect your event from extreme violations of your guidelines, you might also include a warning that failure to adhere to the rules could mean expulsion from the event. Set the expectations before anyone even enters the venue.

At the end of the day, event planners can do only so much to ensure that guests comply with social distancing rules. Nevertheless, when event organizers can’t rely on guests to follow physical distancing guidelines consistently, everything else has to be planned as perfectly as possible. Working to understand the psychology behind non-compliance can be a constructive first step in developing effective risk-management strategies.

Here’s a summary of how to handle each of the issues discussed above:

Anticipating attendee behavior is the first step to managing it effectively, and expecting attendees to behave as they always have in the past is no longer a reassuring prospect. Part of your job is now to normalize the “new normal.”


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