NAHJ hosts mask-optional Miami convention, prioritizes attendee choice and safety

Photo by Xiomara Villarreal-Gerardo
Julie Nogueda, left, wears a mask as she talks, along with Tatyana Rodriguez from Northwestern University, to Ndidi Massay at the NAHJ Miami 2023 International Convention and Expo at the InterContinental Hotel Miami in Miami, Fla, on the first day of the event on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention is back — and this year without any mandatory COVID-19 restrictions.

Last year, NAHJ leaders required masks and other precautions at the Las Vegas convention, which was the first in-person conference since 2019. Precautions still led to outbreaks among convention-goers. 

NAHJ leaders want this year’s Miami NAHJ 2023 International Training Convention & Expo attendees, however, to make their own choice on how to stay safe. Health concerns among members attending the conference exist, but some have said the personal approach is the right decision, especially since the federal government ended the coronavirus public health emergency in May.

Maria Elena Vizcaino talks with Adrian Salazar as she register for the NAHJ Miami 2023 International Convention and Expo at the InterContinental Hotel Miami in Miami, Fla, on the first day of the event on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

NAHJ President Yvette Cabrera said the convention will again be an unrestricted space where members can learn from and lean on each other.

“Before the pandemic hit, NAHJ was here in Miami,” said the organization’s national president Yvette Cabrera. “We’re very glad to be back here in person again, we know that our members have been eager to connect in person which is much different doing a virtual convention versus an in person convention.”

Registration for the event reached full capacity on May 30, and the organization closed registration due to space limitations and fire marshal rules. NAHJ leaders expect 1,500 to 1,600 attendees.

The decision to make masks optional this year also follows the lead of other professional journalism organizations. Last month, the Investigative Reporters and Editors held its annual conference in Orlando without restrictions. The Education Writers Association also held its June conference in Atlanta without requiring masks.

Currently, there are no federal guidelines specifically for large gatherings in the United States, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer provides forecasts of COVID-19 cases. Additionally, there has been a decline in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Although there are no health restrictions, NAHJ has outlined precautionary measures on their coronavirus statement advising convention-goers to follow guidelines for responsible behavior. Those include for journalists attending to get vaccinated, staying home when feeling sick and practicing frequent handwashing.

Cabrera encouraged attendees to feel comfortable making the decision to wear a mask. NAHJ has a code of conduct in place that strictly prohibits any form of harassment, regardless of their choice to wear masks or not. This zero-tolerance policy ensures a respectful environment for all attendees, she said.

L-R, Elena Gonzalez greets Tracey Eyers, Grace Solorzano, and Elizabeth Mendez as they register for the NAHJ Miami 2023 International Convention and Expo at the InterContinental Hotel Miami in Miami, Fla, on the first day of the event on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

Student member and journalism major at San Diego State University Daniela Ramirez attended last year’s conference at Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace and ended up getting COVID-19. Nonetheless, she approves of NAHJ’s decision to empower convention-goers to make personal decisions about their health. 

Ramirez said she would take precautions and is excited to attend her second NAHJ convention.

“Being around hundreds of people, shaking their hands and talking to them closely. I want to wear a mask and I want to have hand sanitizer on hand because anyone can get sick,” she said, “but not everyone is like me so I think it is good that they are having an option.”

Outbreaks also occurred within the Latino Reporter student project newsroom. 

Amanda DeJesus, a marketing assistant at LWC Studios and intern at Resolve Philly, said the project took an unexpected turn when team members contracted COVID-19 during the convention.

“It was very scary for me since I was about to go see, in a few weeks, a family member who was immunocompromised, but I was lucky enough to not get (the coronavirus) at all,” DeJesus said. “I think everyone should be aware of their health and also be respectful of others who are masking because you don’t know what they have.”

NAHJ member and deputy national security editor at the Washington Post, Efrain Hernandez Jr., attended the founding NAHJ convention in 1984 and has gone to many of the organization’s conferences since then.

Hernandez shared that he did not attend last year’s meetup in Las Vegas because he thought the COVID-19 risk was still too high. Given the nation’s progress fighting the virus, he felt safe traveling to Miami for the convention this time around.

“I don’t want to get sick myself, but I also do want to participate and this year feels much different from last year when I didn’t go to the conference, because I thought it was definitely too soon no matter what the circumstances,” he said. “So I feel a little better and safer to try it this year.”

Similar to NAHJ’s 2023 COVID-19 policy, IRE did not require masks at their convention this year but the organization encouraged attendees to use masks indoors. IRE Executive Director Diana Fuentes said her organization provided convention-goers similar information about safety guidelines.

Isabel Rosales walks by the ESPN/ABC News booth at the NAHJ Miami 2023 International Convention and Expo at the InterContinental Hotel Miami in Miami, Fla, on the first day of the event on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

IRE placed a high priority respect for all health decisions. The organization made use of social distance bracelets, which served as a reminder to maintain appropriate distancing. Additionally, IRE made COVID-19 tests available for any attendees who wished to take them.

“Thankfully for most people COVID-19 is in the past, but there are still people out there that need to be concerned about it,” Fuentes said. “There are people who have to be worried for relatives and even themselves about contracting a potentially deadly disease even with vaccination, so just remind people to be respectful of each other.”

IRE’s Francisco Vara-Orta, a long-time NAHJ member, emphasized the importance of following the guidance of medical professionals while acknowledging the value of attending conferences. Vara-Orta is IRE’s director of diversity and inclusion and will attend the Miami conference.

“I followed my doctor’s orders and attended the conference (last year),” Vara-Orta said. “In situations like these, you have to listen to medical professionals you trust. With anything that arises, you either dial up or dial down on what makes the most sense for you and the people around you that you are trying to protect.”

Xiomara Villarreal-Gerardo (she/her/ella) is a recent honors graduate from San Diego State University. She works as an editorial intern at a Spanish-language automotive site, Autoproyecto, covering motorsports such as Formula 1 and Indycar. Reach her at xiomara17vg [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter at @xio_vg.

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