Attendees enter the convention center during Comic Con Special Edition in San Diego, California, November 27, 2021
Attendees enter the convention center during Comic Con Special Edition in San Diego, California, November 27, 2021. (Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Disabled people who attend comic conventions shared in a previous piece how virtual events created a safer environment that lessened their encounters with racism, sexism, and harassment, while also increasing accessibility in ways that weren’t fully explored before. 

Learning of their experiences caused me to consider the push for in-person events while a pandemic rages forward. In my consulting work, I’ve encountered groups and organizations that are looking to host in-person events this year, and I always ask the following questions: “Is it absolutely necessary to do this when we’re still in a pandemic?” and “How can we ensure the safety of those who attend while at the event and when they return home?” 

Event planners and coordinators who prioritize accessibility and pandemic realities are already trying to balance the need for enriching experiences without unintentionally sacrificing the quality of engagement for one group of attendees for the sake of others. However, the push for in-person events also necessitates an examination of the parameters surrounding medical privacy concerns related to vaccination status, how vaccination requirements may still lead to the exclusion of immunocompromised and disabled individuals who have difficulty accessing the vaccine, and what new levels of accessibility are legally required in event protocols and policies.  

All of these uncertainties led me to ask my colleague Matthew Cortland, J.D., an expert in public health and policy, their insight on how hosts can be effective in conducting in-person events without risking health, privacy, and safety for everyone involved.  

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Vilissa Thompson: Do you plan to attend in-person events this year as a disabled person? 

Matthew Cortland: It’s increasingly unlikely that I’ll attend larger in-person events, like cons, this year for a few reasons: the U.S. hasn’t reached the vaccination level necessary for herd immunity against coronavirus; the rapid spread of concerning SARS-CoV-2 variants that are highly transmissible; and a lack of data on vaccine efficacy in folks who, like me, are on immune-modulating biologics to treat chronic illness. I’m also deeply concerned about not being a vector—not transmitting coronavirus—to others in our community.

I get it, I miss my con friends. I would love to see them in person. But I need to emphasize that the risk of COVID-19 has not passed. Vast swaths of our people are not vaccinated, including people who are immunocompromised, going through chemotherapy, and others receiving immune-suppressing treatment that lowers white blood cell counts, which can increase the severity of vaccine side effects

Pandemic life is complicated. And we are still in pandemic life. 

Thompson: Many events, such as comic book conventions (cons), have been returning to in-person formats. Are there currently any health guidelines they need to be aware of to ensure that hosting can be conducted safely and responsibly?

Cortland: International officials, like those at the World Health Organization (WHO), and national officials, like those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are issuing guidance for public gatherings. Depending on where the event is taking place, there may also be reliable guidance from state or local officials. Unfortunately, in a state like Florida, COVID-19 safety guidance has been undermined by politicians like Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

My own risk tolerance isn’t as high as, say, the CDC’s. I think the CDC abandoned what, in public health, are called non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI’s) like masks too soon. So I tend to view their recommendations as a floor, not a ceiling. 

Thompson: More events are requiring proof of vaccination to attend. Is this protocol legally and ethically enforceable? 

Cortland: Whether an event can require attendees to provide proof of vaccination in order to attend is really a legal question, and, like so many legal questions, the answer is “it depends.” A blanket vaccine mandate that didn’t include some sort of exception for those who are medically unable to be vaccinated or those whose religious beliefs preclude vaccination would be legally problematic.

Another factor to consider? Many states are considering legislation against mandating or requiring vaccination in a variety of different contexts, and some have already enacted such laws. 

Given the sheer magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the staggering loss of human life and the long-term health consequences to many of those who survive COVID-19, I believe that achieving herd immunity is a necessary public health goal. And given the evidence showing that the COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. are safe and effective and that those vaccines are now plentiful, I think it is ethical to require vaccination for [attendees] who can be vaccinated. 

Thompson: Does requiring proof of vaccination infringe on the rights of prospective attendees who may not be able to be vaccinated for medical reasons? 

Cortland: Requiring proof of vaccination from attendees for whom vaccination is medically contraindicated and not offering a reasonable accommodation on the basis of disability may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and other related disability civil rights laws. Cons should work with disabled attendees to try to find a reasonable accommodation that will allow them to participate in the event. 

Having a well-thought-out, well-planned, high-quality virtual option for attendees is a great way to meet that access obligation. 

Thompson: Does requiring proof of vaccination infringe on the rights of prospective attendees who refuse to be vaccinated based on false claims about the effectiveness or safety of the vaccine or political stances?

Cortland: No, absolutely not—requiring vaccination does not infringe on the rights of those who wrongly believe the debunked conspiracy theories that, for example, there’s somehow a microchip in the vaccine. It also doesn’t violate HIPPA to inquire about someone’s vaccination status—as some extremist anti-vaxx, pro-COVID politicians have wrongly claimed. 

Thompson: What would be the legal ramifications for violating the medical records and privacy of prospective attendees by not ensuring that medical records obtained are shared and stored securely or vetting vaccination cards to be authentic and not fraudulent? 

Cortland: It’s not possible to give that sort of guidance here; each jurisdiction (each state, the District of Columbia, and the territories) has its own laws relative to medical records and privacy. It’s also worth noting that the much cited federal HIPAA Privacy Rule only applies to what the law calls “covered entities“—doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies, etc. I’m having trouble imagining even an outlandish hypothetical in which an event would be a covered entity for the purposes of the HIPAA Privacy Rule.

Thompson: Larger events have legal teams in place to handle discretions that smaller events do not.  What can events like indie cons that are primarily run by volunteers do to protect the health welfare of everyone involved while also providing a positive experience?

Cortland: While nothing here should, or can, substitute for legal advice, events should always know the current risk environment they’re operating in; stay up to date on the latest public health guidance; and, at a minimum, implement policies at least as protective as that public health guidance. 

I think it’s also really important to know your audience and to plan ahead for contingencies—what’s the plan if anti-vaxxers refuse to provide info about their vaccination status? What’s the plan if they become belligerent if refused entry? 

Cons have faced challenges in other areas and learned lessons about, for example, safety policies. That’s the sort of careful thinking that will be needed here, too.

Thompson: We’ve witnessed the success of virtual events over the past year, and the increase in accessibility and inclusion for disabled attendees. As a disabled person, you know how important virtual spaces are to our community.  What do you want event organizers to consider as they weigh the options of virtual, in-person, and hybrid to ensure that disabled attendees aren’t forgotten again in this space?  

Cortland: Since the start of this pandemic, we’ve seen organizations demonstrate flexibility, creativity, and adaptability to successfully move all sorts of previously in-person-only events online. For years and years and years disabled folks have been told “we’re sorry, but an accessible online option just isn’t possible,” and that has turned out to be a lie. I believe that hybrid events are the future. 

Thompson: What can organizers do to ensure that their events—regardless of hosting format—are more inclusive and accessible?

Cortland: If you’re the kind of event that pays staff? Pay a disabled accessibility expert. “Access consultant” is actually a professional field full of experts whom your organization can hire to provide the kind of guidance that will enable you to run a great inclusive and accessible event. Many events that are very clearly run for financial profit don’t even bother to do the very basics of accessibility and there really aren’t any excuses for it.  

If you’re an all-volunteer event? Take accessibility just as seriously as you’d take other operational areas like registration or dealers.

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW, is a contributing writer covering gender justice at Prism. A macro social worker from South Carolina, she is an expert in discussing the issues that matter to her as a Black disabled...