Those bar crawls and concert venues you're going to might be ignoring your health department's coronavirus safety advice

AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallA sign directs visitors to social distance at the Taste of the Fair, held in Des Moines, after the State Fair was cancelled.
  • Even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the United States, people are still hosting public events like concerts and bar crawls.
  • Not every state requires events to be approved by local health departments. Some states, like Iowa, have lax state-wide rules and don’t enforce local ones.
  • Epidemiologist David Swedler said that signs suggesting approval from health departments can lull people into a false sense of security.
  • He added that airborne transmission of the coronavirus remains the greatest risk, and even measures like mask requirements, sanitizing surfaces, and temperature checks can’t guarantee safety.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Shortly after Iowa’s governor lifted the gathering size limit in June, advertisements for events started popping up in my community.

I was paying close attention because I work as an event planner. I wanted to know how other organisers were going to implement sufficient safety measures, especially at indoor events.

Some advertisements for public events I saw, like concerts and bar crawls, included attractive graphics describing detailed safety procedures near the link to purchase tickets. They looked official. It made me wonder if my local health department had given them the COVID-19 seal of approval.

But no such thing exists. The health department doesn’t even have the power to approve or deny an event plan.

“People started asking, ‘Why did you sign off on that event?'” Dustin Hinrichs, the Food and Aquatics Safety Supervisor at the Linn County Public Health Department, told Insider. “But we don’t do that.”

Event organisers in some states can ignore recommendations from health departments

Since March, Hinrichs has become the de facto liaison for local events. He offers guidance to venue owners and event organisers looking to return to in-person events. But he doesn’t dole out approvals, and organisers aren’t required to listen to his advice.

“They can choose to take my guidance into account or not,” Hinrichs said.

Because of this, safety procedures listed on event advertisements in Iowa are a bit like “all-natural” labels on food products. It probably means an effort was made, but such labels require scrutiny.

Kim reynolds iowaAP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at a news conference on the state’s guidance for returning to school in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.

There are some requirements that event organisers must follow. Per the disaster proclamation from Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, groups must maintain six feet of distance between them. Organisers must also implement “reasonable measures” to ensure that employees socially distance, and they must increase hygiene practices. Because the requirements are limited, indoor events are possible, and there’s no particular size limit as long as these criteria are met.

Local public experts, including Hinrichs, don’t necessarily think the requirements on the proclamation are sufficient, but they don’t have the authority to add to the list. Reynolds, who has the lowest approval rating in the nation for her handling of the pandemic, according to a recent survey, is steering the ship. The state has had 46,836 coronavirus cases and 900 deaths overall,according to Johns Hopkins University.

Safety requirements – and their enforcement – vary by state

COVID-19 safety requirements, and the level at which public health departments are involved in choosing them, vary widely by state.

Some states, like Arizona, require the approval of the local government to host a gathering of more than 50 people.

Other states have much more lax standards. In Indiana, for example, event organisers must submit a plan to their local health department, but only if their event exceeds 250 people. If the event has 249 people, safety procedures are at the discretion of the venue’s owner.

Because of this, public health experts like Hinrichs walk a fine line.

He’d much rather have venue owners reach out to him than avoid him, even if he thinks cancelling is the safer option. He proactively reaches out when he sees event listings, and he’s successfully convinced numerous organisations to add safety measures.

“I respect the fact that many people are trying, and I’ll talk with anyone who’s willing to listen,” he said.

So, some of the event safety procedures I’ve noticed were likely created with input from public health experts. But it’s not a guarantee. And when that does happen, it might contribute to a false sense of security.

Baseless assurances can lull the public into a false sense of security

David Swedler, a statistician and epidemiologist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, has yet to see an event plan that sufficiently addresses what he considers the biggest threat.

“How are you stopping airborne transmission?” he said. “They won’t all touch the railings, but they’re all going to breathe the air.”

Like Hinrichs, Swedler said he wouldn’t discourage venues from implementing these types of procedures, but he wonders if including them in advertisements is misleading the public about the risks.

“Mask requirements and enhanced cleaning procedures might be lulling the public into thinking it’s safe to attend an indoor concert full of people,” he said.

Iowa masksAP Photo/Charlie NeibergallA Des Moines Area Quilters Guild member drops off completed face masks to be distributed to Des Moines Public Schools students, Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.

He also pointed out that temperature checks at the door, like so many other things, are a good effort imperfectly employed.

“Places are advertising temperature checks, but what that tells us is the temperature of someone’s skin, not whether they have a viral infection,” he said.

That’s why I’m struggling with the idea of planning events again, even with safety procedures in place. According to the Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool created by Georgia Tech, there’s an 86% chance that a 100-person event will include at least one COVID-19-positive individual in Linn County, Iowa, where I live.

I can’t plan an event without thinking about safety – it’s a huge part of being an event planner. I’ve always been the person checking for trip hazards and throwing away hot food that’s been left out too long. In fact, it would be easier for me to point to state code to explain why I’m throwing food away than it would be to point to a legal reason to require a mask, since they aren’t mandatory in Iowa.

If Hinrichs were granted one public health wish, it would be making masks mandatory – at events and elsewhere.

“Masks are important. We have the skills and knowledge to come up with guidance if people are willing to follow it,” he said.

In the absence of laws and public health genies, all experts can do to make events safer is to educate and hope for the best. Some event organisers will pick and choose off the advice menu, and others will go to Herculean efforts to try to follow all of it.

Right now, it can be hard to tell which event has which.

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