Safe, Small, Tested In-Person Events for a Controlled Return to a New Normality

It looks like we’re in this for the long haul. I don’t want to rule out some geniuses finding creative solutions, but until then, everything will have to be digital. But really? No face-to-face for a year? That won’t work. We need safe, repeatable, small, expert-approved formats to help people socialise as little as necessary but as much as is safe.

I got burned making first steps at the weekend. It’s probably the wrong time, but I don’t regret it.

I couldn’t take part in the excellent #wirvsvirus hackathon – I just really needed a weekend and working 48 hours is not my personal coping mechanism at the moment. There was talk in the media of a complete lockdown by Monday, which seemed to mean nobody would be able to go out of the house except for essential things, which includes walking a dog but not your own body. (I suppose humans aren’t allowed to shit in the park either, so fair enough.) Thankfully, this hasn’t happened yet, but I didn’t know that then.

I looked out of our kitchen window and saw our communal garden. A croquet set! I’ll order a croquet set! At least we could play croquet with the neighbours! And how about a social-distancing croquet game for all six households in our small block? This would be a chance for us to get outside, chat safely, and find out how we can help each other. I felt the kind of euphoria a rodent must feel when it outruns a hungry fox.

Corona-compliant croquet: the alpha version

I thought about how to do this without endangering anyone:

  • People shouldn’t meet in the stairwell because they could infect each other
  • We should try to avoid touching things others have touched
  • Everyone needs to stay at least 1.5m apart

To avoid people infecting each other in the stairwell I would:

  • Open all the windows in advance
  • Go downstairs and ring the first person’s buzzer. They would then go straight into the garden, where the gate is already open to avoid contact
  • Then I’d buzz the next person

To avoid touching things others had touched (which is less dangerous, I gather, than breathing in droplets):

  • Croquet clubs previously disinfected
  • People should bring their own drinks and glasses (I offered a bit of bubbly, but if people brought their own glasses I could pour it in at arm’s length)
  • People to bring their own chairs

I made a poster, clearly described the plan, and highlighted the most important parts, e.g. don’t come out at the announced time, but only when I buzz you.

Cancellation…

I thought it would be a good idea to post it in the #WirvsVirus Slack, in order to get feedback from people. What could possibly go wrong (with my event, I mean), and how could we prevent that? Or perhaps even cancel it entirely if someone identified an insurmountable danger. The feedback I got, from none less than the moderator, was:

“Ich find es verantwortungslos das du jetzt wenn sich niemand treffen soll etc. sowas organisierst. Und jetzt auch noch stolz darauf bist. Man kann sich via verschiedenster Tools auch perfekt digital treffen.”

To summarise: “It’s irresponsible of you to organise something like this when everyone should be keeping out of each other’s way, and what’s more, you’re proud of yourself. It’s possible to meet perfectly using digital tools.”

(This is bad moderation: a moderator should refer to guidelines, and say why a post is beyond the pale, or criticise an idea rather than making personal slights.)

I’m not going to go into my response, but I deleted the original post because it was just all too stressful. (The comments remained, however.)

This did, however, prompt further discussion with my wife, and we decided it would be a good idea to make sure I’m the “referee”, and if people are getting too close to each other, then the thing needs to be called off and there needs to be a planned routine for ending it without chaos ensuing.

By the next morning, two households (of five) had already signed up. One had explicitly declined.

Following Angela Merkel’s address on Sunday, in which social distancing rules for public areas were tightened (closure of all remaining service providers, no parties in private rooms, no groups of more than two people, no journeys except for essentials, but exercise outside still allowed) I cancelled the event. It might have been, just, within the letter of the law, but not within its spirit. Also, the original problem, namely that people are unable to go outside at all, had subsided.

Lessons Learned

Despite the event not going ahead, for me it’s obvious that digital channels can’t replace all human contact. I had conversations with every neighbour I saw at the weekend, at a distance of about 1.5m. One was with the lady who explicitly didn’t sign up. Clearly, the offline signups and the fact people stopped for conversations shows there’s demand, and people don’t just walk past one another and say “see you online!”

We’ll only beat covid-19 if people pace themselves in this marathon. We won’t get back to normal all at once, but maybe we’ll be able to conduct a controlled release without an explosion of social contact. It’s like trying to ban sex: it’s best to allow people to do it safely. It might not happen for weeks, or even months; but we should be prepared with carefully outlined formats. (Face-to-face contact, I mean, not sex.)

We need:

  • a way of safely developing and testing formats that are repeatable, including some sandbox environments
  • expert-checking of these formats (which is more efficient than policing every event that might take place in someone’s back garden)
  • to be able to make mistakes without being slandered
  • to learn, and share what we learn
  • to be allowed to name and grieve the freedoms we’ve temporarily lost, so we can move on and be positive

So having done at least a thought experiment, broken a tabu and got flamed for it, got a little feedback, observed the world around me, and developed my idea, here is what I’ve learned:

  • There is demand for face-to-face events, whether people admit it (by signing up), or not (by stopping for a chat and declining the official event)
  • Putting up posters in stairwells is actually another way of making people linger there, which increases the danger of infection. So I should have kept it more brief, and perhaps link to a simple website, or spread information by WhatsApp or phone, or by posting it into their letterboxes. Because of the detailed choreography, it needs explaining in more detail than a normal event
  • 1.5m is a loooong way, so I might have cancelled anyway. Perhaps start even smaller to practise in a more controlled way, then increase very gradually
  • A league competition over a few weeks might be better: just two people playing against each other with a responsible person to supervise
  • Plan meticulously the exact route people take to get into the garden, and ensure it’s aired and anything people touch is disinfected after every contact. Open all doors and gates en route
  • One person needs to be in charge. It’s probably good to communicate this in advance, so people respect that person as a “referee”
  • Be clear under what circumstances you need to call off the event (one strike, two strikes?)
  • Have a plan for getting people back into their flats at the end, or if the event is ended prematurely
  • Bear in mind people might need to go to the loo! So do you leave the stairwell open all the time?
  • Ensure any equipment is disinfected, or that people at least wear gloves (it’s still cold outside at this time of year anyway)
  • The current (23rd March) recommendation by Christian Drosten (Chief Virologist at Charité Berlin and a media celebrity/source of all knowledge in Germany at the moment) is that self-built masks help stop people infecting others
  • Extra plans would be needed for children, as there aren’t any in our block (maybe the league competition idea, above, would be more suitable as only one child and one parent would be present at the same time)

Open innovation to create formats for communities and business

Everyone who is involved in events and any business involving social contact in any way is tearing their hair out at the moment. Some form of open innovation is needed now, instead of everyone trying to solve these problems and coming to the conclusion that they either do everything digitally, or nothing at all, but still have to make money with untested business models while having no resources to pay people to brainstorm and try new things.

A platform for people to suggest and polish formats that can replace meetups, restaurant visits, social events in communities, sporting competitions, sport livestreams in the open air, etc. A limited number of formats could be developed with advice from experts in virology, sociology, psychology etc. and whoever else is needed, and signed off by official bodies for other people to implement.

This way, a kind of normality can return sooner, while staying safe. People could be obliged to have an official plan showing adherance to approved practices if the police show up, which would save their time. Businesses and communities can get up and running faster.

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