Once the COVID-19 pandemic started and the nation took shelter in March 2020, Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) Executive Director Mark Tester and the rest of the management staff began crafting a plan to get back to hosting events at the Orlando, Florida-based facility. While anxious to get back to some degree of normalcy, it was universally understood that a hasty approach would not only lead to events that weren't adequately safe for attendees and staff, but could also leave a permanent reputational stain.

Instead, Tester says the team spent several months developing a multi-faceted approach for hosting events with three primary components: recovery and resiliency guidelines that outline health and cleaning protocols; a partnership with the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) to receive official accreditation and guidance on said protocols; and an additional partnership with Orlando Health to equip events with the necessary medical services and expertise that the facility's staff didn't have on its own (see sidebar).

Once the plan was solidified in July of 2020, the OCCC opened its doors again in a careful and calculated manner. In the six months that followed, there have been over 50 events hosted without a single COVID-19 outbreak. Key to the success was not just the protocols themselves, but stressing their value both to attendees and cleaning staff.

Selling Safety

A major component to the OCCC's success with hosting events throughout the pandemic was the sheer size of the facility at over 7 million square feet, in addition to the types of events being hosted. Unlike concerts or single-game sporting events, where start times are concrete and everyone congregates in one designated area, Tester says the events they host — expos and trade shows — are conducive to social distancing and allow for attendees to enter the facility at staggered times.

The biggest adjustment for attendees over the past year were layout changes to the events themselves. This included one-way aisles, separated eating aisles and plexiglass for food providers, all of which have been appreciated by vendors and attendees alike.

"For our biggest business-to-business event so far, we mapped out 800 unique 10-by-10-foot booths and allocated far more space in-between than we usually do," says Tester. "For trade shows, you typically want to get as narrow of aisles as you can so people marvel that it's packed. It's the opposite now. Although there were 3,000 total attendees, it didn't look that way and that's exactly how our staff and attendees wanted it to be."

Smoothly running large scale events in normal circumstances is difficult enough, so adding in health and distancing rules in an environment where close gatherings are typically encouraged makes for an unprecedented challenge. With that in mind, Tester says the OCCC makes sure to partner with show organizers that align with their own safety protocols. In doing so, both OCCC environmental services staff (EVS) and event organizers can work in-tandem to strictly enforce mask wearing and ensure that hand sanitizer stations and appropriate signage are in the right place.

These in-the-spotlight efforts are new to the center's EVS staff. While a critical part to the execution of any event, most custodians had become accustomed to being a behind-the-scenes contributor. The newfound emphasis for visible cleaning, however, is an opportunity for frontline cleaning staff to get the recognition they deserve.

"You'll see frontline staff wearing masks and wiping down high-touch areas like handrails and escalator buttons nine times a day. Show attendees felt more comfortable and we got acknowledgement right away," says Tester. "The same goes with bathrooms. If we cleaned a bathroom in the middle of the day, people would actually wait for the cleaning to be done as opposed to going down the hall to another, because it gave them the confidence that they were entering a safe environment."

An elevated presence for the cleaning staff during events also brought elevated expectations for how the employees presented themselves. Knowing the pitfalls of setting a bad example for attendees, Hector Clemente, OCCC Facilities Operations Manager, prioritized the procurement and training of wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE) at the onset of the pandemic. The key, he adds, is explaining that PPE isn't a requirement simply from an optics standpoint. It is a legitimate tool of protection for the frontline workers.

"The wearing of PPE initially was a challenge. We had to go through the process of how different methods of protection worked and why masks were worth wearing," says Clemente. "Once everyone understood the benefits, it gave the employees a necessary confidence that exudes to the attendees — and they thrive off that. If you tell everyone else to wear a mask but you aren't doing it yourself, what kind of message is that sending?"

Another initial obstacle came from the cleaning staff wanting to wear different types of face coverings that didn't follow the OCCC recovery and resiliency guidelines. The OCCC resolved the issue by going off Orange County's official standards, which led to all employees wearing the appropriate type of gear.

In addition to leading by example, Clemente says the OCCC made sure to advertise the health-centric investments they made to further ensure the safety of event attendees. For all events, 10 portable handwashing stations and 130 hand sanitizer dispensers are on hand and placed strategically in designated areas, depending on the layout. Additionally, the center equipped nearly 2,000 sinks with germicidal soap across the North-South and West Buildings.

Whether or not attendees or event partners specifically asked, Clemente says promoting these features are important to convey both the surplus of resources the center has on hand, as well as the commitment to using them correctly.

Other protocols that are promoted via event announcements, signage and directly to attendees include electrostatic fogging for conference rooms. Often in front of attendees, the frontline staff will disinfect all touch points during a 15 to 20-minute intermission before new groups shuffle in. Additional high-tech equipment is on-hand in case of emergencies or specific requests, notably ultraviolet (UV) machines are called into action whenever symptoms are reported.

"We won't take any chances. We'll seal up the room, place signage all around, bring the UV machines in and allow them to pulsate for 30 minutes," says Clemente. "Afterwards, we'll use our electrostatic foggers and wipe down any other high-touch surfaces. It comes down to providing a level of assurance and being able to say we've done as well a job at minimizing the risk from that point as anybody could."

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