The Fleeting New Normal of the Summer Anime Con Season 2022

I’m going to jot down some thoughts about COVID-19 as it intersects American anime conventions. Think of it as my own feedback from going to 3 cons on back-to-back weekends. Thinking about it some more, having a very personal take is the only take possible. As with all testimonies about COVID, it probably needs a grain of salt or two. My situation will be different from yours, but hopefully the insight helps with your particularities nonetheless.

A bit of background in case you’re new to this blog–I’ve been going to anime cons since the late 90s, and probably averaged about 7-8 a year for the 10 years leading up to 2020. Since the pandemic hit, I have been working from home and I normally do not leave the house. Maybe once or twice a week to get food and supplies, tops. That said, I have flew out of state and to Europe since 2020, and as COVID restrictions decreased in 2022 I have done more traveling out of town, by car, train and plane.

For example, I went to AnimeNYC in November last year, and went through that whole Omicron rigmarole. That was also a good (anecdotal) example of how a con actually didn’t do much to worsen spread of the COVID beyond a community baseline. Omicron was just beginning, though, so I won’t treat that datum with much weight.

I currently live with elderly, immunocompromised people, so I try to cultivate my inner hikkikomori in a way that avoids indoor, crowded spaces generally. The good thing is this comes naturally, I am totally a shut-in nerd when I want to be one. The bad thing is that it also means sometimes I just want to get out of the house! It’s where I both work and play, for starters. Remember I used to go to many cons a year, plus Japan, and other gatherings? I wanna hang out with other eventer friends I’ve not seen in years, thus these cons. Something about an itch?

Anyways, too much isolation is bad for you too. The goal is to try to balance and minimize the risk without getting sick of being a shut-in. I realize this is personal in the sense that people’s risk tolerance (perceived and otherwise) differ by many different factors, and ultimately we want to keep COVID transmission no higher than existing community levels. This is kind of a policy statement that reasonable people will come to different conclusions on, but ultimately I draw the line at “not making things worse.” You might want to draw a much closer or farther line. Either way, this is not important to me. The goal is to protect the people near you, your family and immediate friends. This means you don’t want to bring COVID home, and this is really the one and only primary objective this con season for me. If I go to a con and catch COVID, I won’t say it will never be worth it (If Natsuki Hanae or Aoi Koga gave you COVID, isn’t that not necessarily a bad thing? This is a joke, all right?), but it most likely won’t be.

To do that, we have to understand the actual risks. The distinction I make between reckless COVID spreading behavior and a reasonable new normal is the difference between habitual risk-taking versus occasional risk-taking. There are things we do habitually–some people are out and about in the town every day because that is their lifestyle. Some people always eat out, for example. Then there are the occasional outing that puts you in a crowd. If you are the former, you are rolling COVID gacha all the time. In that case, even if the activity is at very low risk (wearing masks while out and about), you will likely catch COVID eventually due to the overall duration and permutations of the interactions. If you have infinite money, you don’t need a suptix, in other words; if you have infinite time, you will eventually catch every disease (assuming you don’t die)? A few rolls at even greater risk, the odds are lower that you end up with COVID when these risk are rarely taken. And as you’ll see, “greater risk” here is not even so much greater if you take the right precautions.

[By the way, this is also why COVID disparately impacts the working poor. They are all rolling with their masks on because they live this way. The moment they let their guard down, which we all invariably will as we are mere mortals, is when the virus will strike. The Laptop Working Class can reduce habitually risky behavior in their lifestyle, so they can afford to fail to properly protect themselves more often.]

It’s not fully clear how dangerous it is to go to a con today, so to be safe, it’s best to treat it that you will be in proximity with someone who is COVID positive. Even so, outside of the few very crowded areas of a con, you are likely not next to that someone much, or at least if such someone is a random stranger. It’s a higher risk, but short-contact tradeoff. I went to 3 fairly large cons, each probably had more than 20k attendees, and it wasn’t that common that I was surrounded by people as long as I’m not in line.

Which is just to say, it could be a shut-in at the con in line behind you, or it could be the barista at the Starbucks you go to everyday. Either could give you consars. One you will see many days a year, the other you will see just once ever, even if for an hour or two at a time. It’s not a simple risk tradeoff, or rather, it’s more about how many hours you spend in proximity and with protection than just the fact that someone surely has COVID in a crowd.

Furthermore, at a con, you have the power to tactically lower your COVID risks too. Avoid crowds! Isn’t that the main problem with cons? (Actually, no, read on.) It turns out, you can still be at a con and avoid the crowds, most of the time. And try to distance yourself where it’s reasonable to do so. This is where a good con and a bad con can make a difference. Are lines well-controlled? Is there enough hall space in the dealer’s room for the crowd to spread out enough so at least the traffic isn’t jammed? How long are you in line for anyways? I can give props to AB and ACen about these points for the most part, not so much for AX. Some streetwise can go help you avoid a biologically nasty situation, as well. Keep your wits about, I guess.

By the same metric, the basic understanding is that without cons, maybe there is less spread than with a con. But without cons, people are still going to do the things that spread the virus–that’s what’s been happening since the beginning of the pandemic, and in the USA things are just ramping up to a hot summer travel-wise, according to industry predictions. Cons are going to be one of those things people are going to do. Which, if you think about it, in some sense, air travel in the US is pretty much a good proxy of what people do at cons…maybe minus the real ways cons spread COVID. You literally all crowd through a busy line, have to take your mask off for the TSA officer, and most airports have large, airy designs with tall ceilings.

What makes cons dangerous for spread of COVID is just really one thing. It’s the exact same thing that makes COVID dangerous at home.

Hanging out with friends unmasked is the way to catch COVID at a con. This could be eating a meal together, this could be a room party, this could be several different things. Meeting friends who you haven’t seen in years is great! But just be careful about unmasking. At ANYC last year I did a booth karaoke with 2 other people who have been sorta careful, so we did it without masks, but I think I was lucky in that Omicron wasn’t the prevalent strain yet at the time, as it is much more contagious.

Going back to Omicron at ANYC, the cluster CDC investigated is totally just the one guy’s friends and people he hung out with at the con, and it’s those people that got the consars. That’s how COVID spreads most of the time. You can take the statement I make with all the salt in the world, as I don’t have hard science to back it up, but it is the most logical conclusion if you think about how most people get COVID, and what people do at cons.

In other words, what you shouldn’t be doing to avoid spread of COVID when you’re at home is the same thing that you should avoid at cons. There is really nothing that much worse about cons and the crowds themselves as long as you take the right precautions. Most large cons, ones bad enough for that sort of crowding, are in large con halls with high ceiling and good ventilation. You can always opt out of the rave (lol), or go to an empty area in the back like I did at Acen’s Synergy. You can try to avoid crowded chokepoints and spend less time in them when possible (like dealer’s rooms). These things are much easier done than keeping your mask on while drinking at a party, unfortunately. It’s that party, that’s how the virus gets you. And if you insist on having one, in June 2022, this means booster-vaxxed and antigen-negative considering Omicron still infects the vaccinated.

Most importantly, wear N95 masks. It makes a huge difference, and it only costs a few dollars each, if that. It protected many health pros during the COVID early days, during the Delta and Omicron surges, and N95 masks continue to protect them today. It’s proven to work along with proper usage and other good hygiene practices, plus the vaccines. It is what kept me COVID-free so far, with these 3 cons back to back (AFAIK I have yet to contract it), knock on wood. It’s smart to also carry around a small hand sanitizer thing (or use the ones at the con), because you need to use it before you eat after touching…the mahjong set or whatever it is that you do at cons.

Taking these reasonable precautions go a long way to make your consars rolls manageable. It’s not failproof, of course, but I think these risks, after reasonably managed, are small enough to be taken with good conscience. It’s still not as safe as not going to cons at all, but the precaution you need to take for cons are not significantly different. The flip side of the coin is also true–stay home and you won’t have to worry about most of these mitigation methods. Still, you should still avoid meeting friends unmasked unless you have good confidence they are also “clean.”

In short, the take away from me is, wear N95 mask, as much as possible. Even when with friends at a room party–especially when with friends at a room party.

I will end with just a note on the COVID policy things that Acen and AX (today!) bungled, which is to change them for the weaker. I think on the whole, given that most people catch COVID at cons not through crowds but through personal interaction with people they know, it’s almost more theater than sound theory. However the risk profile does change–if your con goes from “full vax and mask” to “partial mask” the con needs to offer refunds. Each person makes a decision to go to AX or Acen based on their personal risk factors, so it’s not something that can be explained away by ham-fisted social media posts about public health policies. If you change the nature of the event, you need to offer refunds. Just like if you offer to sell a white car then it changed to a black car, even if you said the color might change in advance, you need to offer refunds for people who don’t want it anymore. Acen didn’t and that’s a bait-and-switch in my book. Shame on them. Anime Expo at least didn’t do it 5 days before the con, but 24 days before the con is not a lot better, given AX prep tends to be much more extensive even for locals.

At the same time, Anime Expo is always a terrible line con. Pre-COVID, the con already had prior struggles with lines and keeping attendees outside in very high temps for hours. Don’t forget also the people in the AA that one year, LOL. I have zero confidence AX can wing a vax check without putting more people in ambulances for heat stroke or what have you. Not checking vax is lesser of the two evils in that case, as much as AX in-person is already, arguably, evil. And as I say to many of my friends, AX is consistently the worst-run con that I attend every year (before COVID, anyway).

Still, I think people want to have a good time at the con and they shouldn’t have to worry about COVID. A good COVID policy goes a long way to remove that mental barrier to enjoyment (eg., a mask mandate basically resolves this). Good implementation (not what A-Kon does) will smooth things out. Having a strict policy on COVID and smoothly implementing it like how Anime Boston has done it is the best, but I understand that won’t be possible for every event. Certainly however, changing the policy last minute for sure raises the specter of this pandemic to the fore (well, maybe that’s not all bad?) and it will tarnish people’s enjoyment, which works against the purpose of anime cons completely.

There are some lingering linecon competency problems and venue management issues with enforcing COVID measures as well, and on top of added HR cost and real cost to manage the vax check. This means there are real financial gains with dropping those COVID policies. Whatever it is in the end, just don’t let idiots who think cons have to follow CDC or WHO guidelines get their way–cons are private events and they can set their own COVID policies just fine. Guidelines, as the name implies, are just suggestions and don’t dictate what private events can do. It might affect cost, or cause attendees to queue for extra long (which is bad too, from a COVID transmission sense), but it’s not because they can’t.

Enough of this depressing topic. Maybe I should follow up this mostly-serious post with some Real Eventer COVID Woes topics:

  • How to do calls with duckbill N95 masks, since it moves around; which N95 are best for calls?
  • Which of my oshis is most likely to give me COVID (or another disease w/e)? Do you really want it given the chance?
  • When you get a 2 shot with an idol, do you keep your mask on or take it off?
  • When will Japan actually open for eventers, like, not North Korean style?
  • How do you handle the feels from a COVID-era debut artist who heard their songs performed live with calls for the first time?

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