The pandemic isn't over. Some credit union events are back anyway.

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Some credit union groups are trying something unusual for their fall conferences — holding them in-person.

Credit union conferences quickly pivoted to a virtual format when the coronavirus pandemic began to spread widely in March. Nearly all of this year’s major industry events have been held online, with some of 2021’s biggest events already scheduled to be held virtually.

Some smaller and regional groups are beginning to resume events with live crowds. But with travel budgets slashed and concerns around the virus still widespread, it remains to be seen what attendance will look like.

“I think there is a little bit of fear still if you haven’t been on a plane, if you haven’t been at a meeting and you don’t know the changes the venues, the airlines and everyone else has taken,” said Sally Mainprize, CEO at Iron Peacock Events.

“It really is a different world … [but] when you’re sitting in your office or home office not knowing exactly what the experience will be, it’s a little bit intimidating," she added.

The National Credit Union Management Association will hold its fall conference this week in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, but with a COVID-19 makeover. Attendees will be subject to daily temperature checks, social distancing measures and mask requirements, and even a color-coded wristband for each guest indicating how comfortable they are interacting with other guests.

As of Sunday, new cases in Idaho were up by 64% over the last 14 days, according to data from the New York Times.

Attendance is expected to be down about 30% because of the pandemic, said NCUMA CEO Kathy Budd, though she said the overall response to an in-person event from most of the industry has been positive.

"I’ve not heard a lot of negative feedback,” said Budd. “If someone has been on the fence about attending, it’s more of ‘Tell me what you're doing’ or ‘I’m not ready to travel yet, I’m going to wait until next year.’”

The Credit Union Association of the Dakotas has scheduled its annual summit for next month in Sioux Falls, S.D. The event was originally planned for May but was postponed. CEO Jeff Olson explained that after a charity golf outing with many league members in June, it was clear there was an appetite for a live event.

“We’d all been hunkered down for a couple of months and we decided to hold strong and look at having in-person events,” he said. “Things did change a bit over the summer and they still are. The COVID is spiking here as well but people aren’t getting that seriously sick, and more people are out and about now with school opening, and things like that. We’ve done a pretty good job taking personal responsibility in the credit union movement and protecting ourselves.”

As of Sunday, new COVID diagnoses in South Dakota were up 74% over a 14-day period, according to data from the New York Times. The state’s infection rate was relatively level throughout the summer before beginning to rise in mid-August. North Dakota has seen a similar spike, with new cases beginning to rise in mid-July, and diagnoses as of Sunday up 53% compared to two weeks prior.

The league has put safety measures in place, including requiring masks — and giving souvenir masks to all attendees — and limiting the number of guests per table. However, Olson said other precautions, such as whether or not to do on-site temperature checks, are at the discretion of the convention center hosting the event. CUAD will not be the only group holding a conference those days. The South Dakota Chamber of Commerce will also host its economic forecast at the same time as the league meets, though Olson said that event is a hybrid of live and virtual, so it may only have limited attendance.

Registration for CUAD’s event is already at about 60% of what it normally is and the league does not have plans to cap the number of attendees.

“I don’t doubt that they’re doing their best” to protect guests, said Dr. Claudia Holzman, an epidemiologist at Michigan State University. “Wearing masks is probably one of the best things you can do as a precautionary measure, but in a setting like a convention center I don’t know that you can guarantee that everyone is 24/7 wearing masks, whether it’s the people who are disinfecting [or] the people who are attending.”

The Nebraska Credit Union League had planned to hold its own in-person meeting next month — postponed from its original date in June — but canceled it in mid-September.

“We moved it to this date hoping things were going to settle down and maybe look a little bit better … and we decided it was probably in everybody’s best interest not to have a large gathering at this time,” said Amy Shaw, chief initiatives officer at the league.

Attendance was also a consideration. Shaw explained that registration was trending in a direction where not enough people would be coming to make the event a success, “and with things not looking better yet and the flu season hitting, we thought this was probably a better route to go.”

Adding to compilations was that some industry groups and trade associations which regularly participate in the credit union conference circuit, including CUNA Mutual Group, currently have policies in place prohibiting staff from traveling.

Credit unions aren't the only ones attempting to get things back to normal — some bank trade groups have also begun holding in-person conferences. The Georgia Bankers Association kicked off a live conference of its own over the weekend at Lake Oconee, and other live events for the financial services industry are also on the horizon.

Many credit union events have yet to announce plans for 2021, but some — including CUNA’s Governmental Affairs Conference — have already committed to a virtual format. Mainprize suggested smaller regional events that may draw only a few hundred people are likely to be the first to return, and attending those sorts of functions could help people get comfortable with the idea of resuming normal business travel.

With some areas of the country hit harder by the virus than others, Mainprize added that some national conferences could shift to smaller cities when they resume — at least for a short time. Rather than large metropolitan areas, she said, some groups may choose to place events in mid-size cities that still have airports and large hotels but comparatively limited COVID exposure.

At least in the short-term, she said, “going to a glitzy, glamorous city may not matter so much.”

Even though these conferences are in less populated areas than some industry events that draw a national crowd, Holzman cautioned against complacency just because of geography.

“If you look at any given week or two you can probably pick places that are lower prevalence than others, but testing isn’t always equal across places so we’re not always measuring apples and apples,” she said.

There’s also the possibility that groups of any size gathered could create a superspreader event. All but 10 states currently have restrictions on the maximum number of people that can be grouped together, though some states have left those decisions up to individual counties. There are no statewide restrictions on the size of gatherings in Idaho and South Dakota.

“We don’t really understand how superspreader events start,” said Holzman. She added, “We don’t know what the components of superspreaders are, we just know that in contact tracing and tracking cases we have observed there clearly are some events that kick off a huge number of secondary and tertiary cases. That doesn’t happen unless people gather.”

Conference organizers for CUAD and NCUMA both downplayed the possibility of creating superspreader events.

“I’m going to rely on our credit union folks that are going to come to protect themselves,” said Olson. “We’re going to protect ourselves [and] I’m going to put faith in the convention center. They want these businesses back; they certainly don’t want an outbreak at one of their events; that would set us back even further.”

NCUMA’s Budd echoed that, adding that attendees’ comfort levels with in-person gatherings will partly dictate the atmosphere at conferences.

"None of us really know when this is going away,” she said. “We need to do what we can to support the economy in a safe environment. We believe we are providing that environment for attendees. If someone is worried about attending because it could turn into a superspreader event, then they may want to wait until next year to travel."

This story was updated at 10:49 A.M. on Sept. 28, 2020.

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