The CDC recently released new guidance on considerations for events and gatherings. The scope of the guidance is broad, covering any planned or spontaneous event, even those with only small numbers of people. CDC has reminded event-holders that the guidance is meant to supplement any safety laws, rules, or regulations applicable to events or gatherings, such as requirements under state or local law.

As an initial matter, it is important to evaluate risk factors such as the number of attendees, the length of time the event lasts, the nature of interactions at the event, and the level of community transmission. Organizers of higher risk events should consider taking stronger steps to reduce that risk, including reducing the number of attendees, postponing the event, or even cancelling the event. The CDC grades risk according to the following scale:

  • Lowest risk: virtual-only activities, events, and gatherings;
  • More risk: smaller outdoor and in-person gatherings in which individuals from different households remain spaced at least 6 feet apart, wear cloth face coverings, do not share objects, and come from the same local area (e.g., community, town, city, or county);
  • Higher risk: medium-sized in-person gatherings that are adapted to allow individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and with attendees coming from outside the local area; and
  • Highest risk: large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area.

If an event or gathering will be held, the guidance explains steps to minimize COVID-19 risk similar to guidance that CDC has issued for, among other things, businesses operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those considering holding events or gatherings should review the guidance closely, but key provisions include:

  • Advising employees and attendees to stay home and not attend the event if they have tested positive for COVID-19, are showing symptoms of COVID-19, or have had close contact with someone showing symptoms of COVID-19 in the last 14 days and considering adopting a flexible refund policy for attendees if the event involves a participation fee;
  • Adopting best practices such as encouraging the use of cloth face coverings/hand washing by attendees, and requiring face coverings/hand washing for employees, conducting daily health checks for staff and employees;
  • Adopting certain engineering controls, such as ensuring that ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible. If portable ventilation equipment like fans are used, take steps to minimize air from them blowing from one person directly at another person;
  • Ensuring that all water systems and features (e.g., sink faucets, drinking fountains, decorative fountains) are safe to use after a prolonged facility shutdown;
  • Considering limiting the number of people who occupy a restroom at one time
  • Developing a schedule which requires cleaning and disinfection as frequently as possible;
  • Using touchless payment options as much as possible;
  • Encouraging social distancing by, for example, limiting attendance or seating capacity at the event. Consider limiting attendance to only those in the local community to reduce the risk of inter-community spread;
  • Encouraging any organizations that share or use the same venue to follow the CDC’s guidelines and limiting shared use, if possible;
  • Encouraging staff and attendees to bring their own drinking water; and
  • Limiting food service to individual, prepackaged meals rather than buffets and salad bars and asking customers and employees to exchange cash or card payments by placing them on a receipt tray or on counters.

CDC has also provided a number of recommendations with respect to how space should be used in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19. For example, event organizers should:

  • Provide physical guides (such as tape on floors) and barriers (such as sneeze guards) at the event to further encourage social distancing;
  • Change seating layout or availability of seating so that people can remain least 6 feet apart;
  • Stagger use of shared indoor spaces such as dining halls, game rooms, and lounges as much as possible and clean and disinfect them between uses;
  • Use multiple entrances and exits and discourage crowded waiting areas;
  • Block off rows or sections of seating in order to space people at least 6 feet apart;
  • Consider closing areas (like drinking fountains) which cannot be cleaned and disinfected adequately;
  • Offer online attendance options in addition to in-person attendance to reduce the number of attendees
  • Eliminate lines or queues if possible; and
  • Prioritize outdoor activities where social distancing can be maintained as much as possible.

Staff or attendees may be members of groups at higher risk for serious complications or death resulting from COVID-19. Event organizers should provide information to staff and attendees about the risks for those groups, and should express openness to providing accommodations to mitigate those risks. For example, event organizers should consider offering telework or modified job opportunities for staff who ask for such accommodations (such as setting up for the event rather than working at the registration desk) or allowing attendees to attend the event virtually by internet video feed. In considering these options, event organizers should take care not to violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and generally should not ask employees who do not ask for accommodations to accept differing work assignments. Instead, it is preferable to allow employees or attendees to ask for accommodations before making individual accommodation offers.

Event organizers should designate a COVID-19 point of contact who will handle COVID-19 inquiries and issues, including notifications about staff and attendees who are sick or exposed. It is important that staff be trained on safety procedures, as well as cross trained in the event of absenteeism caused by COVID-19.

It is critical to have a plan in place for how to respond upon learning about an actual or potential COVID-19 infection at the event. This plan should include a way to:

  • Isolate and transport those who are sick;
  • Clean and disinfect areas used by the sick person; and
  • Notify health officials and close contacts in accordance with state and local laws.

As the nation continues to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, the legal framework governing that response is changing as well. The employment lawyers at Hogan Lovells are tracking the latest developments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone with additional questions is encouraged to contact the authors of this article, or the Hogan Lovells lawyer with whom you normally work.