May 18, 2022 | By Bronwen Largier

New South Wales passed a grim milestone this morning when the latest daily COVID-19 death statistics landed at 9am. The state officially passed 3,000 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, with the vast majority of deaths – about 75 per cent – occurring in the last five months.

Even in the last two weeks, in NSW alone, we’ve had the rough equivalent of a plane crash of deaths with COVID. The analogy, which I picked up from an epidemiologist, is shocking, but that’s the point – a plane crash in NSW every two weeks would make the news, but the equivalent in COVID deaths does not.

Victoria passed the 3,000 deaths milestone a few weeks ago and has seen just over half of its 3,158 COVID-19 deaths occur this year.

And with Australia starting the year off with a 91.5 per cent double vaccination rate, clearly vaccination isn’t enough.

In fact, when you look at the data, the real key to lowering COVID-19 deaths, is to lower the number of people catching COVID in the first place – and that’s where the events industry has a significant role to play.

Here’s the thing: just because domestic governments have ended most COVID-19 restrictions – from density limits to close contact isolation rules (in most states and territories) – doesn’t mean we should be blindly following what’s permitted to the letter of the law.

As an industry, we are special. We do something special and, unfortunately, we have special risks attached to what we do.

If we follow the government directives – or, at this point, lack thereof – like it or not, an event is one of the most likely places to catch COVID.

Unlike any other setting, we bring strangers together for long periods of time and we encourage them to mingle – often (perhaps even mostly) indoors. Because of this, we pose a greater pandemic risk than activities like going to a restaurant or a bar, the cinema, on holiday, flying on an aeroplane and lots of other things we like to do for work and for pleasure.

As events have returned, I have, of course, been to a few, and I have seen both good practices and bad practices. I have felt both safe and unsafe. And I have caught COVID at an event.

What I’ve observed is that there are some small and relatively simple ways we can make people feel safe: holding events that take place largely outdoors – although this may get harder as winter sets in – holding events in larger spaces, insisting on rapid antigen tests prior to entry, encouraging mask wearing as much as possible and having fewer people. There are also some more comprehensive measures that we could be employing.

And I am confused as to why I’m not seeing wholesale change across our industry, when our business has become one that is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

I am still seeing events proceeding without rapid antigen testing, with lots of people in small spaces with low ceilings. I’m still seeing hotels talking about cleaning surfaces not cleaning air. I’m not seeing venues raving about their ventilation rates and other measures they could put in to remove COVID from the air their attendees are breathing. I thought I’d be seeing more open space, more outdoors, more air purifiers tucked away in corners. Why not? We can’t talk about being COVID Safe unless we’re actually spending the money and the time to go above and beyond.

And we must not forget the risk we pose to those beyond our events. If you cram hundreds of people into a small space as an organiser, are you also going to clearly and loudly advise your attendees not to visit their grandmother or father, or friend with cancer, diabetes or a supressed immune system in the week after your gathering?

We may think of those daily death stats as old or sick strangers, but in reality, we all know people who could die of COVID-19, even with three or four vaccination doses, and by taking steps to limit the spread of COVID in our event environments, we are also protecting these not so strange or anonymous friends and family.