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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Pros and Cons

FanX re-emerges to the challenges of how to stage a huge event in the time of COVID

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COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo

Nobody in the world of entertainment has had an easy time of it over the past 18 months, navigating an ever-changing world where it wasn't clear when and how people could gather, and what measures should be in place if they do. Now imagine figuring that stuff out for an event where you're dealing with thousands of people in an indoor space.

FanX—Salt Lake City's home-grown pop-culture and fan convention—was cancelled in 2020, but returns this week for three days of celebrity guest stars, panels on various topics, and vendors, all for the benefit of enthusiasts ready to put on their favorite character cosplay. They do, however, need to be ready to put on masks that aren't just the kind worn by Spider-man and Batman.

In order to allow the event to take place in a safe manner, FanX is requiring attendees to wear masks. While it wasn't the scenario FanX co-founder Dan Farr was anticipating when they made the decision earlier this year to go ahead with a September event, it was one that made sense. "It's not an easy decision," Farr says. "Nobody wants to wear a mask, unless it's part of their costume. For us, having to come back around to having an event that would require masks, was difficult."

The decision was less difficult, of course, than the one to cancel the event entirely last year. "Even if we had wanted to go forward, the Salt Palace was closed down, so there was just no going forward," Farr says. "But we wouldn't have [held the event] anyway. We reached a point where we had a go or no-go moment ahead of the event; people make travel plans and everything. It was just so clear, but still a very hard decision. And even as we did that, we were told by some people that we were ruining lives by not allowing people to get together."

As was true for most of us, the FanX planning team began looking at things with more optimism in the spring, as case counts dropped. Even then, however, Farr says the expectation was for an event that would look at least somewhat different from how it looked in previous years, from a reduction in the number of panels, to greater spacing throughout the event area. FanX also had the benefit of learning from other convention organizers around the country as they began holding their own events.

"Every state is different," Farr says. "Atlanta [where Dragon Con was held Sept. 2-6] is different from Utah. But we've learned some things, like using plexiglass partitions for the celebrity guests. ... It was nice to have them sort of blaze the trail."

It might be expected that booking celebrity guests to travel to a convention might be harder while COVID still rages, and Farr says there have been some challenges—but not necessarily because potential guests are worried about large gatherings. For many, scheduling simply became more challenging, in part because so many other conventions also planned their events for the fall. There was also the matter of film and television production playing catch-up after the 2020 shut-down, and in part because of restrictions placed on actors who have signed on to such productions.

"When an actor starts a film project, they're expected to isolate," Farr says. "The film company isn't going to say, 'Sure, it's okay to go off for the weekend.'"

The rise of the Delta variant changed a lot of the expectations for what would be safe in the fall of 2021, and Farr says they did discuss vaccine or testing requirements for attendees before ultimately deciding not to impose such restrictions. He also acknowledged that there have been some calls, on social media and elsewhere, for events like FanX not to take place while COVID case counts continue to spike, but he believes that's "very much the minority. It's just the world we live in now that people are ready to get back. With that being said, a week from the convention, there could still be something that comes up. But we don't anticipate that."

So FanX will go on, with a mask requirement that Farr says he expects people to respect in the same way he's seen it respected at large gathering places like Walt Disney World, where "they weren't walking around yelling at people, but they'd encourage you when you walked indoors, 'Put on your mask, please.' We'll have a few people kindly reminding attendees at various checkpoints. ... We've always had such a respectful group of attendees; there's just this underlying understanding of being respectful to others, and I assume that's going to continue with this."

And while Farr notes that masked faces will make it a little more challenging for him to use his traditional "smile test" of knowing while walking around whether people are enjoying the event, he's confident that everyone involved—from staff to guests to attendees—will be happy to return. "Coming back to this year, being able to re-connect with people we've worked with for years, and having a purpose, it's meant so much for everyone, and pulls everyone out of a slump," Farr says. "It feels good to bring some happiness to people."