We can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel–and as opposed to the old saying–I don’t think it’s a train. So let’s talk about mingling after COVID.
Infection and death numbers have decreased, while vaccinations are increasing. And we’re seeing some creative marketing approaches to keep increasing vaccine coverage such as lotteries with cash prizes for having or getting COVID vaccinations in states like Ohio, New York, and Maryland
Now that we can start getting out again and enjoying time with one another, how do we approach it?
It feels a little like Rip Van Winkle. We’ve all been out of it for so long that we have the social aptitude of a middle schooler at their first co-ed dance.
What do we do?
- Do we go running up and hugging everyone like we’re all Labradors or do we need to ask permission in much the same way you would approach a fierce-looking stray dog?
- Is it safe to shake hands?
- Should we just stick to elbow bumps?
- Is it all about science or do we recognize that some people don’t trust the science and should we consider that when planning in-person meetings over the next several months?
There’s a lot to take into account as we all come out of our proverbial caves and begin interacting once again.
In this article, we’ll go over the nuances behind planning events in the first several months of opening up again. We’ll also address the psychology behind getting together again. Finally, we’ll have some suggestions on best practices that will help make everyone feel more comfortable.
Geography Has Never Mattered More
All through COVID, groups proudly proclaimed that we’re all in this together. While we all experienced a global pandemic and every state and country was touched, we did not all experience it in the same way, at the same level of precautions. Even throughout the United States, some governors took a much more cautious approach than others. After former President Trump allowed states to decide what was best when it came to closures, there was a definitive split in leadership. States like Florida and Texas largely reopened with few limitations. Other states took a more cautionary approach.
Because of that, there is a sizable difference in experiences in this country. You’ll see that reflected when people return to in-person gatherings. For some chambers, this article is outdated as they’ve been gathering for a while. For others, they may not even be ready to take on the responsibility and perceived risk of in-person gatherings.
While your members’ and community’s experience may be homogeneous, you may have outliers and people new to the area who don’t share your same feelings, concerns, or understand your openings. Since COVID also made many jobs more fluid, allowing people to work from wherever they choose, you may start seeing more chamber and community members from other areas. Here in Florida, we have become a home (whether temporary or permanent is yet to be seen) for many people previously from states with greater restrictions. Our editor’s home state of California is becoming a net “exporter” of people who are moving “back East” (i.e. east of the Rockies).
Politics Plays into It
I would be remiss to leave the elephant in the room unaddressed. Freedoms and restrictions over the pandemic are at least perceived as being political. It may not be something you want to address directly but it’s worth mentioning.
There’s a joke going around the internet that asks, “How do you know if someone is vaccinated? Ask them who they voted for.” It seemed like half the country didn’t want to wear masks this past fall. And now there are a good portion of even vaccinated people who are intensely uncomfortable about not wearing them.
Why does this matter?
Because there’s an undercurrent of distrust involved. It’s about more than perceived health and safety. There’s some general angst and testiness behind certain causes, limitations, and precautions.
And both sides are convinced the other side is ridiculous.
We’ll touch on this more in the best practices section but it suffices to say that some chambers may find they need to play the peacemaker roles in contentious situations.
So let’s talk health.
What Chambers Need to Know About Healthy Practices Post-COVID
On May 13th, the CDC announced “fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.”
But what exactly does that mean? And how is it enforced?
That depends on your state. In Florida, vaccine passports have been made illegal. No business or government entity can insist upon seeing vaccination cards or papers in order for someone to receive service or entry. California is still technically under “Stay At Home” orders. For many states, like Michigan, it means people are on the honor system.
The Psychology Behind a Year of COVID
It’s understandable that some people will not feel comfortable with this. They’ve been wearing a mask for over a year. They’ve become conditioned to it and relied on it for a feeling of safety and protection. Giving it up, especially when they know some people who haven’t been vaccinated are no longer wearing masks, may make them ill at ease. This is something chamber pros will need to keep in mind.
HALF of people admit “they feel uneasy about readjusting to in-person interaction postpandemic.”American Psychological Association’s (APA) Stress in America poll from March 2021
People are at different stages of comfort with opening up and being maskless. Social anxiety is high for many people. The APA wrote in a recent blog post, “social anxiety is driven by avoidance, and we’ve all been avoiding social interactions for the better part of a year.”
Sounds like a perfect storm of awkwardness and unease.
For some, they may have even lost their social confidence. Some people are not naturally at home in groups, presenting, or making small talk. They may feel self conscious even raising their hand in a group setting. Pre-pandemic, some business professionals had worked past those fears and anxieties and many of them are concerned over re-entry and whether they will get back to their previous levels of social confidence that they worked so hard to achieve.
The chamber can do a lot to help with this. As we open back up and begin gathering again, there are many aspects that will need to be addressed. There are concerns over:
- health and safety
- feeling part of a group again
- social confidence
- reconnecting with their network
- people being too close
- resurgence (of the illness)
Opening up may be more difficult than just finding a couple of extra bottles of hand sanitizer.
Best Practices for Mingling after COVID
When it comes to meeting in-person for the first few times over the next several months, there are a lot of things the chamber staff will want to plan on.
Address Physical Touch
As mentioned earlier, some people are ready for masks off, while others are not quite sure. The same goes for shaking hands, giving hugs, or just standing too close. You want people to feel comfortable without making those who don’t want to get too close feel like pariahs.
This can be done in many ways. You could use a sticker code to signify an attendee’s level of comfort in closeness. A red sticker on the name tag would denote a desire to remain physically distanced with no hand shakes or touching, while a green would signify pre-COVID actions were fine. You can have fun with the stickers and move past red or green and go for different designs like emojis. Get creative with your designations.
ASI Central has an article with a case study of using branded social-distancing wristbands here.
You can also declare a handshake free zone and post other alternatives to shaking hands like elbow bumps. Some people may feel we should be past that but stress that your plan is about making everyone feel welcome and that things are ever evolving and the next meet-up may not be a handshake-free zone.
Develop a Plan
You want to ensure you have a plan and that everyone is familiar with how things will work before they get there.
If not, you run the risk of attendance being low. When people have questions or concerns, they will generally opt not to attend. If you let them know what to expect ahead of time, they can make an informed decision that they feel good about.
Whatever you put in place, be clear that everyone attending is free to choose how they will participate. There is no wrong or right way to be a part of things.
But stress that it is a personal choice and that no one should try to make anyone else feel like their choice is right for the other person. Just like in other social situations, physical touch should not be pushed if someone doesn’t feel comfortable.
Ensure everyone’s comfort is your paramount concern and…
Stress Kindness and Insist on Respect
Make sure everyone in attendance understands you are stressing kindness in all interactions.
You will not allow belittling of one person or group. Everyone is free to choose how they participate and that means respecting their decisions. Be specific about how you will handle unacceptable behavior.
Adopt an attitude of gratitude and try to get others to do the same. The longer you can keep a good mental attitude, the easier it will be to smooth out some of the angst from mingling after COVID.
Make the focus about enjoying one another and helping everyone feel comfortable together again.
Explain that getting together again after all of this time is like a first date. Some people are nervous, while others are excited. It’s perfectly acceptable to be all of those things at the same time. Keep a good sense of humor and help others do the same.
If you are in a community that was shut down for a while, you will likely want to start small and stress intimate (i.e. small) gatherings in the beginning. Create niche networking events aimed at smaller groups and more meaningful exchanges. These small, limited registration groups will also help you create a fear of missing out to drive interest, while still putting people at ease that you are socially distancing.
Encourage registration so that no one feels left out or thinks they can show up day of. This will also keep you from having to turn someone away at the door.
Also, if there’s a payment involved in registration, offer flexible cancellation policies for those who feel sick the day of or a few days before. You don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t cancel because of cost.
Not only do you want to embrace choices, you also want to provide options for mingling after COVID. Your entire membership or community may not be ready for in-person interaction. Don’t flip a switch and decide everything is virtual one day and in-person the next.
You can do hybrid events and networking gatherings but make sure those at home feel included and not just a big face on a screen. If you decide not to do hybrid events, consider continuing some events online until everyone feels less anxious. That timing will be different in every community.
Remember the Little Things
One of the things that has been frustrating for everyone is the lack of consistency in application of provisions. Make sure that whatever rules you put in place are consistently applied. For instance, if you ask people not to shake hands, don’t encourage them to exchange business cards. It’s the same thing. Instead, encourage them to exchange contact info on their phones or by scanning/taking a picture of it.
While some event gurus are suggesting you ask for proof of vaccinations, this can be a large problem. It may even be illegal in your state but it is not a HIPAA violation. Some people want to use stickers to show vaccinated versus non but that can drum up issues as well. Even if your intention behind asking is to be helpful, it may feel like a violation of personal privacy. Make sure you check with a legal professional before requesting to see any kind of proof.
Poll Your Members for “Mingling After COVID” Preferences
You’ll never know how people feel about interacting in person until you ask them. Be sure to engage your members and community and monitor their pulse and sentiment the way we were monitoring temperatures.
Opening up in a social sense will not be easy for everyone. Many people feel some social anxiety related to health and safety. This is a time when understanding and kindness will be especially critical to the chamber’s success.