At least three attendees of the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists joint conference have tested positive for the coronavirus since Thursday, according to organization officials.
Two of those cases, NABJ said, came from participants in the student project that brought together dozens of student participants and professional mentors to produce journalism in and on the conference this week. It was not immediately clear how the third person was related to the convention.
More than 4,600 people attended the 2022 joint conference in Las Vegas this week.
Student participants from The Latino Reporter and the NABJ Monitor, and their mentors, were required starting on late Thursday to take daily COVID-19 tests and follow more strict guidelines meant to limit the spread of the deadly virus. All attendees at the joint conference were required to prove they were vaccinated and boosted prior to the convention.
The two people who tested positive, according to an email sent Friday morning by NABJ, were isolating in their rooms.
“We understand this was a risk when planning our first in-person conference during a pandemic, but things happen when thousands gather in one location,” the email said. “Student project participants are following safety protocols as they continue their assignments.”
David Peña, NAHJ executive director, said Friday evening that the convention was sticking closely to guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and following the protocol established by Caesar’s Palace, where the convention was held. Conference goers were also asked to wear masks at indoor NABJ and NAHJ events, despite Clark County and the CDC no longer requiring masks anywhere in Las Vegas.
Caesar’s Palace resorts are cleaned and disinfected daily, according to pandemic information on their website, and hand sanitizing stations are located throughout the resort.
Peña added that neither entity requires contact tracing.
“So that’s why we are putting the information out so that our publications, notify our members on what to do,” Peña said. “As of right now, CDC, it’s all isolate, test and self-protection, and that is why we have hand sanitizers; that is why we have asked for masks.”
On Friday, conference attendees were greeted at the top of the Caesar’s Forum Conference Center escalator bank by volunteers reminding everyone to mask up.
Aneesha Hanif, a volunteer with NABJ, mimed mask-wearing to every person who walked by her on Friday. She shouted through a clear plastic face shield: “Put your mask on!”
Several conference goers said they perceived a new urgency around coronavirus protocol and noticed more people being diligent about mask-wearing. Still, compliance wasn’t perfect.
“I think like in the job fair area, everybody was wearing masks. In the more social events … people are not wearing masks,” said Joe Schatz, executive editor for platforms and operations at Politico. “It kind of tracks what you’re seeing in the outside world right now.”
Some journalists said they were hesitant to come to Caesars Palace this week due to the large number of people they expected to be staying in the hotel. Cameron Minor, a student and sports journalist at Arizona State University, said he understands why some people might feel uncomfortable attending the large gatherings at the convention.
“If I was immunocompromised, I would not feel comfortable here,” Minor said.
Manuelita Beck, a former Student Projects mentor and senior political editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, said some people who came to Las Vegas for the convention have told her they do not feel safe in the crowds.
“I have heard other friends of mine complain about how not enough people have been wearing masks,” Beck said. “And I have one friend who said that he didn’t feel safe.”
Others said NAHJ and NABJ officials did the best they could to prevent potential spread of the virus.
“It’s a lot of people,” said Schantre Camack, a senior talent director at ESPN. “They could have changed it from Vegas. But, I think they’re doing what we know works.”
Several members emphasized that face-to-face interactions are crucial for professional events, and after two years of virtual gatherings were glad to be back in person.
“I think people were really missing that support aspect that we normally get from these conventions,” Beck said. “So I understand why people were really excited to come and see each other in person. And I think we can all just do what we can to be careful. But there’s no way to be 100 percent safe.”
Covid cases have plagued other journalism organizations hosting large gatherings, including the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ annual conference in June that brought about 1,500 people to the Gaylord Rockies Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Denver.
IRE Executive Director Diana Fuentes, who this year was inducted into the NAHJ Hall of Fame, said about 50 people tested positive as a result of the IRE conference.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the date in which testing began for participants in the 2022 student project. NABJ and NAHJ began to administer tests on Thursday. The story has been updated.
Tanya Velazquez is a junior at the University of Texas at Austin double majoring in journalism and Latin American studies. She’s currently interning at the Voces Oral History Center, working to preserve Latino history in the U.S. Reach her at tvv96 [at] utexas [dot] edu and on Twitter at @TanyaVelazquez_.