An Updated COVID-19 Policy for AAS 241
We are revising our COVID-19 health and safety policy for the 241st AAS meeting in Seattle to include a mask mandate alongside our (unchanged) vaccine + booster requirement. You can read the full policy online.
The longer version
Two weeks ago, the AAS Vice Presidents and Board of Trustees asked for community feedback on our planned COVID-19 Policy for the 241st meeting in Seattle, Washington (8-12 January 2023). The Board has now read and considered all of the thoughtful, respectful, and science-driven responses from members across our community, heard feedback from our working groups including the AAS Working Group on Accessibility and Disability, and consulted with our peer organizations including the American Physical Society.
We asked for your feedback because, in the end, we’re your Society. We also live in confusing and challenging times, and reaching a consensus on best practices for large meetings can be difficult, even for medical and public health professionals. While the Board agreed that it is incumbent upon us to provide an inclusive and safe venue for our in-person attendees, the manifold ways in which we disagreed on how to responsibly achieve that goal mirrored discussions that have been held in our community and far beyond.
Mask mandates independent of community levels do now technically depart from current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) public health guidance, and we considered fair arguments that the Board should not claim to know more than public health officials. Many of our attendees will fly to Seattle on planes and eat indoors in restaurants that have no masking requirements. In addition, requiring masks at the conference was seen to be counter to the current masking policies of our host city and the country at large. The Seattle Convention Center dropped their mask mandate on 12 March 2022 in response to Seattle’s King County doing the same, and the AAS cannot currently mandate that vendors, contractors, or convention center staff wear masks at the meeting (although we can certainly request and encourage it). The Board also discussed the degree to which there may be “off ramps” to mask mandates, especially in potential futures in which SARS-CoV-2 is considered endemic. It was for these reasons that our earlier AAS 241 COVID-19 policy was written to maximally align with CDC guidance and the policies of professional societies that employed public health consultants in their development, including the American Physical Society and the American Medical Association.
On the other hand, AAS leadership is highly sympathetic to those who feel strongly that our policy should exceed CDC guidance with respect to masking. Indeed, several large meetings — including the November 2022 meeting of the American Public Health Association — will have mask mandates in place, regardless of the community level. Nearly three years into this global pandemic, one major lesson learned is that it can be better to be more cautious now than regret a more lax policy later. Nobody on the Board wants to host a “superspreader” event. Everyone on the Board wants to protect our immunocompromised members to the degree that we reasonably can. Our winter meeting will start just a week or so after a major holiday season, global travel may exceed even pre-pandemic 2019 levels, and we cannot predict the behavior of new variants. And though virtual attendance provides a safe alternative to in-person participation, it does not replicate the in-person experience in manifold ways, including making new professional connections, fully participating in discussions, and catching up with old friends. Telling our immunocompromised members to simply choose virtual attendance was never considered an equitable and fair option.
We also recognize that our COVID-19 policy should not be decided by popular vote, and that it is incumbent for us to listen to those in our community who are most at risk. In soliciting community feedback, we further understand that we cannot sample a representative subset of our entire membership. Nevertheless, the community feedback we did receive was overwhelmingly in favor of implementing a mask mandate, regardless of CDC community levels in Seattle and the nation beyond. Many respondents suggested that our AAS 240 policy was widely considered successful, although the Board understands that Seattle in January is very different from Pasadena in June, and so there must be some practical differences in any mask mandate we might implement. We cannot reasonably expect our members to attend large catered events like the opening reception outdoors in January. The Board, therefore, discussed the degree to which we might be able to consistently and fairly enforce a mask mandate (especially when we cannot mandate it for trade show contractors and convention center staff), and the inevitable inconsistencies that will arise during catered events. Ultimately, we can only do our best, treat one another with grace, respect, and understanding, and work together to create an inclusive, productive, and safe venue for all.
To that end, on 3 November, following an extended discussion that included consideration of all received community feedback (including thoughtful feedback in favor of the original policy), we have revised the AAS 241 COVID-19 policy with the following modification:
Alongside our (unchanged) vaccine + booster requirement, we are implementing a mask mandate at AAS 241, regardless of the CDC community level. More specifically:
- N95, KN95, KF94, or FFP2 masks — or those of roughly equivalent protection — will be required across all AAS venues except in a few designated areas and select special events (to enable members to enjoy food and beverages, etc.). The AAS will provide these masks for free for any who need them (up to two per attendee).
- Presenters will be allowed to remove their masks during their presentations if they wish, as long as they are reasonably distanced from the audience.
- All attendees will have the right to reasonable accommodation to briefly lower or remove their masks for short periods to enable drinking or eating while indoors.
- While AAS staff and volunteers will do their best to enforce this policy, we ask that members please respect the mask mandate. Also, there will inevitably be some level of inconsistent enforcement at various times, so we ask that all attendees, exhibitors, and staff treat one another with grace, understanding, and respect, and we will require that all adhere to the AAS Code of Conduct at all times, with no exceptions.
We remain grateful to the community for your thoughtful and respectful feedback on the first version of our AAS 241 COVID-19 policy, and we will continue to listen to your feedback going forward (email@example.com will remain open and monitored). If one thing has been universally clear from your comments thus far, it’s that our members really value our winter meetings. They want to attend, and they want to feel safe in doing so. Ultimately, if we are not providing an environment in which our members feel safe, then we are not fully delivering on our core value of inclusivity, which requires that we use fair and accessible practices to create a diverse and welcoming scientific community.
We look forward to seeing you in Seattle, virtually or in person. We have an extraordinary and exciting program, and we cannot wait to celebrate one of the most remarkable years in the recent history of astronomy with all of you.
— The AAS Board of Trustees
The AAS Vice Presidents