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City offers guidelines for events to reopen safely amid pandemic concerns

Tuesday, March 23, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

The city has released a new set of guidelines for event safety that looks to provide some clarity and help a critical piece of the local economy recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. On Friday the Austin Center for Events published the 13-page “Bringing Events Back” report that breaks down recommendations for how to safely hold events indoors and outdoors as vaccination levels increase and the prevalence of Covid infections declines.

The report contains more than 50 points of consideration and recommendations for event planners looking to reactivate their businesses for in-person gatherings for the first time since the large-scale closure of live music and other events last spring. The report encompasses input from a host of city and county departments, the Austin Convention Center, Experience Sector Covid-19 Economic Recovery Working Group, and more than 40 local event professionals who offered their feedback on topics from proper social distancing, cleaning and sanitization to health screenings and food and beverage service during a series of virtual meetings in September.

With the Austin area currently at stage 3 of the risk-based safety guidelines, restaurants and other businesses are able to operate at 50-75 percent capacity and the public is advised to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

Some city facilities have begun to reopen in anticipation of further declines in infections. Central Library will host events and private rentals on a limited basis beginning in April, and the convention center is cleared to operate at 25 percent capacity in a move to attract event and convention business.

This is the second significant set of guidelines the city has helped produce in an attempt to clear the way for events to get started locally. Last August’s Reopening Every Venue Safely report provided options for the city’s dozens of music venues to enact and operate safely.

Industry participants who contributed to the guidelines said there are still many unanswered questions about how to conduct their business going forward, since much of the work behind the report was conducted last fall before the introduction of vaccines as a safety measure.

Cindy Lo, owner of Red Velvet Events and a member of the city’s Special Events Task Force, said corporate events are likely to remain sidelined until late 2021 because of widespread uncertainty over safety protocols and the approval processes locally.

She said recent discussions with the city’s event center for a possible corporate event in a private parking lot left her with too many uncertainties regarding licensing and permit approvals to move forward. Even with the new guidelines, she said that situation is likely to repeat until federal and state leaders sync up the requirements at the local level.

“We are so far beyond the basics and with vaccinations happening now we need to talk about if we can require vaccination passports, or with there being no mask mandate now, how do we talk about that?” she said.

“I wish between the CDC, the state and the city we would have agreed on some kind of protocol, because if one group pushes something out then generally we can agree to copy it. Because we were under another administration when this was done we didn’t have good guidelines since the CDC didn’t even address events until this year.”

Lo said the guidelines could provide a framework for major events like South by Southwest and other large gatherings with the budgets to enact comprehensive sanitation and social distancing requirements, but many questions remain for smaller events.

“This is more for a South by Southwest or someone wanting to do a festival closure and street closure. I know there’s not a one-size-fits-all document, but I don’t feel like this addresses the elephant in the room, which is how do we get smaller events businesses back into working mode,” she said.

“I agree we should practice the cleaning and distancing steps in this, but there’s nothing in this that makes me feel confidently that once we get to stage 1 I can do an event for 500 people outdoors as long as it’s in this certain amount of square feet.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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