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Will the Omicron Variant Change Events in 2022?

Events have teetered between virtual, hybrid, and live through 2021, echoing the ebb and flow of the COVID-19 pandemic, through the delta variant — and now the omicron variant. One of the first cases of the omicron variant in the United States, as chance would have it, began at the Anime NYC 2021 convention in November. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that a vaccinated Minnesota attendee experienced mild symptoms on November 22 before getting tested, confirming they’d come down with the second known case of the omicron variant of COVID-19 in the U.S. In early December, the convention organizers then encouraged all attendees to be tested as a precaution.

There’s a lot of blank spaces yet to fill about what’s known about the omicron variant because of how recent its discovery is. So there’s plenty about its effects to study. In general, what’s understood about the omicron variant at this point is that it is much more virulent than the delta variant of COVID-19, it may cause less serious cases in many infected people. But with the potential rate and breadth of infection, the impact may actually be more than serious enough.

Since the variant was first discovered abroad and then in the U.S., over the next few weeks, the omicron variant has rapidly spread to become the dominant version of COVID-19 infection in the U.S. As of last week, according to the CDC, 73% of all new COVID-19 infections last week were omicron, representing about 650,000 new infections in the U.S. alone. The CDC’s live tracker of COVID-19 infections overall shows a spike of well over 400,000 infections daily. As a result of omicron-driven infections, several countries have banned travel to and from several countries, which will certainly impact live event participation for the near future. For example, Israel has recently blocked travel to the U.S. and Canada, with other travel restrictions imposed by governments and companies frequently changing.

So, that takes us to where we are now, with a question looking ahead: What effect might this have on events (in gaming and technology) in 2022, at least toward the start of the year? With infections on the rise again, how might event planners change their events in the first quarter of 2022? How might attendees, speakers, and sponsors adjust the way they participate in such events coming up?

CES 2022 won’t be nearly as busy with booths or attendees as it was during CES 2020, the last physically live show. (“CES 2020 – Las Vegas” by nlintheusa is licensed under CC0 1.0)

With the CES 2022 tradeshow coming up in Jan. 5-7 as a hybrid event in Las Vegas and online, we may have an idea what impacts the rising number of omicron infections may have on a major event. Whether or not a surge of infections will overlap with CES in Las Vegas, some effects already have been felt over the last several days. Several big name sponsors and exhibitors (many known to gamers), such as Intel, Microsoft, MSI, AMD, T-Mobile, HyperX, Google, and Lenovo, have withdrawn from CES or are attending with limited staff or a digital-only presence. Many major media publications have made it known they will cover CES 2022 remotely. CES announced they will now have a shortened schedule by a day, concluding instead on Jan. 7 at 6 p.m., as an “additional safety measure. Variety’s CES Summit will transition to a virtual event that will take place later in January. Some other CES-related events and parties have also been canceled. A number of companies have put out a statement that attribute their change of status to the rise in COVID-19 cases and a desire to minimize exposure of staff to pandemic-related risks.

Last week, CES organizers, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) have asserted via a press statement and via a Twitter thread they will continue with the physical component of CES in a manner they believe will be safer with fewer in attendance and greater social distancing.

Gary Shapiro, head of the CTA, took out an editorial piece in the Las Vegas Journal-Review to further emphasize that CES 2022 will continue as a hybrid event. Shapiro states that they face a tough choice: canceling and harming smaller organizations who rely on CES — and not canceling, thus facing criticism from the media and other voices who focus on drama and big-name companies. According to a recent Investor’s Business Daily interview with Jamie Kaplan, Dr. Director of CES Communications at the CTA, “We have 2,200 companies who want to have a show. So, we are having a show.” The number of cancellations represent under 10% of total exhibit space. The CTA has also expected CES 2022 to draw about 40,000-60,000 attendees. By comparison, in 2020, CES officially hosted 171,268 attendees and had 4,419 exhibitors.

To attend CES 2022 in person, proof of vaccination and masks are required. CES will provide one free rapid COVID test kit per attendee available to those who attend in person.

CES 2022 is looming large on the immediate horizon, but there are many other events coming up over the next few months that might be affected by changing COVID-19 requirements. Among some of the key events in the games industry coming up in Q1 2022 with a physical or hybrid footprint are:

It’s too soon to say whether either of these events will be affected by the latest surge of COVID-19 infections. However, the RSA security-focused show, a larger event that was also on deck for San Francisco in early February, was just moved to early June. It wouldn’t be a big surprise if the 2022 GDC or the D.I.C.E. Summit (or other events over the next few months) experience a change of format, date or venue. Of course, one tip we can recommend is that you keep track of the status of events that interest you by keeping tabs on the Events for Gamers calendar.

Dec. 31: Updated with revised CES schedule and note about media publications participating remotely

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