Should you start going to business conferences again?

Back in the 2010s, I averaged almost 100,000 miles a year on business travel. I went to endless Linux, open-source, and cloud conferences. When COVID-19 hit, I went from flying around the country and to Europe every few weeks to driving to the grocery store every few weeks. Now, I’m back on the road — and in the air — again. So far in 2022, I’ve been to Boston, Valencia, Spain, and Austin for work. I expect to finally make it to Dublin, Ireland, and numerous spots in the US before the year is over.

So, do I recommend traveling for business again? Hell, no. It’s not safe out there. It really isn’t. It only seems safe.

Public health services in many countries are simply no longer measuring cases accurately. It’s like putting a blindfold on while you’re driving down the road and believing that since you can’t see the other cars, you’re safe.

As epidemiologist Michael Osterholm told The Washington Post: “There’s probably more transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in the last 30 days than there had been in any 30-day period in the entire pandemic.”

A quick reminder: even if it doesn’t kill you, long Covid can really mess you up. A recent long-Covid study found it can have lasting cognitive symptoms. Or, in English, as the San Francisco Chronicle put it, “Covid keeps the brain cloudy for at least half a year: symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, memory impairment, and decreased concentration for up to six months after a mild or moderate case…only one-third said they were completely resolved at [six months]. None in the study had pre-existing neurological conditions.”

I live by my wits. I can’t afford to spend half a year being fuzzier than I already am. (That’s one reason I keep up on what’s really going on with COVID-19 via Violet Blue’s Pandemic Roundup newsletter. She’s a friend; it’s a good guide to what’s going on.)

Because I live by following the news, I’ve been on the road. I’m writing this in a conference hotel in Austin at Open Source Summit. But I’m quadruple-vaxed and I’m wearing an N-95 mask. This event, like KubeCon in Valencia, insists that we all be vaccinated, wear masks, and have our temperature taken just to get in. High-grade fever? Back to your hotel room and good luck.

The Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), which runs KubeCon, tracked COVID-19 results of its attendees. They found that out of about 7,000 people at the show — it was a big one! — 121 had positive tests. That represented about 1.7% of total onsite attendance. Far from perfect, but not bad.

What about meetings that weren’t as restrictive? It was ugly.

The Society for Academic Emergency Medicine (SAEM), which really should have known better, held its annual meeting in person in New Orleans in May. Somewhere between 18-67% of its 3,000 attendees have tested positive.

I’d never go to that show. It’s not a topic I write about. But I did consider going to San Francisco’s RSA Conference. Then I looked closer. San Francisco’s COVID-19 numbers were up and while RSA may take security seriously, it wasn’t taking Covid seriously. Masking was not required. I skipped it. Glad I did.

It’s been declared a super-spreader event.

Finally, I’ve yet one more indirect reason to forego business travel for the foreseeable future. The airlines have been canceling flights left, right, and sideways; thousands of flights have been cancelled in recent weeks. Many people I know weren’t able to make it to Austin as a result, or got here hours late.

One problem is the airlines don’t have enough staff. (They let a lot people go during the pandemic.) Another is that many pilots, stewards, and ground crew aren’t coming in because they’re flat on their back with COVID-19. Remember when that judge in mid-April essentially ended the federal mandate to wear masks on airplanes? And almost immediately, all airlines dropped the mask requirements?

I wonder if there might be a link between people not wearing masks in planes and airline personnel coming down with Covid. Do you think there might be a connection?

So, while I’ll still be on the road or in the airport going to trade shows that know how to do the right thing, I’ll be the guy still wearing a mask, usually next to an empty seat. For the rest of you? Stay home. You’ll be glad you did.

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