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Rose City Comic Con ’21: What’s it like at an in-person convention during a pandemic?

Did mandatory masks and enhanced safety protocols dampen the usual convention experience?

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Rose City Comic Con was held earlier this month on September 10th-12th, 2021 in Portland, OR. The convention was among the first to return in physical form after over a year of virtual-only events due to the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic. Like many in the comic industry, I’ve been pretty desperately missing the con-going experience — I’ve actually been having fairly regular dreams in which I’m at a con, sifting through longboxes of unsorted $1 comics, looking for whatever gem catches my eye or whatever book I can get signed by a creator in Artists Alley. I’m based just north of Seattle, about 3.5 hours from Portland, and Rose City was a show that I’d always wanted to attend but hadn’t had the opportunity. Plus, the world has changed pretty significantly since the last physical cons, and I was eager to see just what going to a convention would be like amidst a pandemic.

LeftField Media, the organizers behind Rose City Comic Con, reported that nearly 40,000 people attended the convention over its three-day span. All attendees were required to adhere to a few safety measures, including wearing a mask at all times while inside the Oregon Convention Center, and presenting proof of vaccination or of a negative COVID test [either PCR or rapid antigen] within the past 72 hours upon entering the building. That proof got you a wristband that you would wear along with your regular con badge throughout the weekend. Hand sanitization stations were also set up liberally throughout the lobby area of the convention center.

(L) The wristband given to attendees after showing proof of vaccination or negative COVID test within the past 72 hours; (R) The mask I wore for the convention, with KN95 mask inside

In addition to being fully vaccinated, I took a few extra precautions for myself, double-masking with both a strapless, disposable KN95 mask and another, slightly more comfortable, filtered mask to hold it in place, and carrying a large bottle of hand sanitizer in my over-the-shoulder bag to use after touching pretty much anything. I also took extra Vitamin C starting a day before the con, and multiple times a day during the con itself.

As this was my first year attending Rose City, I asked a few regular attendees how they thought the weekend compared to past RCCCs. Everyone I spoke to agreed that, while attendance may have been smaller, the energy and overall experience were pretty much the same. “Obviously it’s a little smaller than usual, just because of the downsizing a little bit for COVID,” said Dan Parent, writer and artist for Archie Comics, who had a booth in Artists Alley for the weekend. “But overall I’d say it’s still packed with people. A lot of people have shown up to be here. It feels pretty much the same, maybe just with a little bit [smaller] size.”

Ruth Ann Thompson, Sr. Retailer Relations Manager for AfterShock Comics, concurred. “It looks and feels very similar to two years ago while still feeling very safe,” she said. “Maybe the crowds have been a little more spread out, but it feels [like] about the same attendance in a lot of ways, at least our booth has been just as busy as it was two years ago.” AfterShock was one of just a handful of publishers I saw exhibiting at RCCC, along with Oni Press and Source Point Press.

One vendor I spoke to, Sunda Egli of convention mainstay Fandom Flare, said she thought the experience was actually a little better this year than in the past. “I think that the vibe, people are happier,” she told me, “And I’ve had less people complaining or being weird, because they’re just so happy to be here and doing things. I think that has maybe made people a little more appreciative of being able to come to a con, [because] they understand that it could all go away so enjoy it while you can.”

“Obviously the last two years, year and a half, have been challenging, but the actual weekend and being here we feel like has been pretty smooth and we’re really happy with how everything’s turned out,” said Lauren Dabb, Director of Marketing for con organizers LeftField Media. “We feel like the show floor has felt very comfortable. We did a lot of things to make sure that that was the case — wider aisles, being mindful of our numbers on times of the show when we know it gets busier, so with that being said, we’ve been working with the convention center and we feel like everything that we did has made it go pretty well.”

Along with wider aisles, specific areas of the convention center were designated where attendees sit and could remove their masks to eat. Tables in that section were well-spaced, and there was a lot of open area to move and to socially distance in those areas.

The designated area of the con floor where attendees could remove their masks to eat. Large tables also helped attendees from different parties share a table while still socially distancing.

As for the vaccine/negative test and masking requirements, no one I spoke to reported any issues with attendees. Writer David Pepose, who was exhibiting in Artists Alley, told me about the only issue he experienced with attendees masking. “I’ve spotted exactly one person, they were talking on the phone and they pulled their mask down I think just out of reflex,” he said, “and I just gently was like ‘Hey buddy, could you put your mask back up,’ and he did it immediately. I think he was so contrite, he didn’t realize what he had done.”

Fandom Flare’s Egli said she also saw one person wearing a mask improperly. “I had one guy yesterday who just refused to wear it the right way,” she said, “And it was one of those things, like people around him every time he came by were like [mimes leaning away]. But here it’s been great. Last night we were eating dinner at our hotel in the lobby, and a group came in that were just, ‘I don’t have to wear a mask!’ and they were like ‘Yeah, actually you do.’ That made me nervous more there. Here I haven’t seen any issues, I haven’t seen any people not.”

Echoing what other exhibitors said, Fandom Flare’s Sunda Egli said the layout of their booth also served to help her socially distance from attendees. “We have a table between us, so I can step back and that makes me feel a lot better.”

A few people even expressed to me that they felt safer in Portland at the convention than they did at home and in other public spaces. Said Egli, “We’re from an area, Grants Pass, that’s like the worst in the state, the worst of the west coast, so getting to a big city where people are actually paying attention to it made me feel more comfortable than being at home.” Pepose echoed that sentiment, saying, “Being a Los Angeles native I can’t say that I always see that in my home town, so it’s really nice to see that the fans are being so considerate of creator safety and their own.”

“I feel safer here than I feel when I go to Walmart,” said Parent. “When I go to Walmart I don’t know what I’m walking into sometimes. Here I know everyone is wearing masks and been vaccinated, so I feel safe.”

“All of our staff has been the eyes on the floor, making sure everybody’s complying,” Dabb told me when I asked about enforcing the mask requirements. “We have a system with our crew so if they’re seeing that people aren’t complying they have a way to contact us and we can go gently remind people, and anybody that we’ve had to remind has been very nice about it and has put it on no problem. They understand that that’s kind of where we are in this world, that this is what needs to happen in order to be here. We did have proof of vaccine or negative covid test within the last 72 hours required to get into the building, and again everyone’s been completely understanding of that, everybody’s been complying to it. It’s gone fairly smoothly.”

Some cosplayers, like Superman (left), wore normal masks in addition to their costumes, while others, like Kid Loki (right, with Alligator Loki), created custom masks to match their cosplay.

The vaccine/negative test mandate was a move that was universally appreciated by those with whom I spoke. “I’m really happy that they instituted the check of people getting COVID tests or getting their COVID vaccine,” Pepose told me. “I’ll admit I was about 50/50 on whether I was going to do the show until they made that announcement. I hope that’s something that all con providers are able to do. It would certainly go a long way towards me feeling safe at future shows.”

“I think they should be doing [vaccine or negative-test requirements] all along,” Parent added. “It just makes you feel safer, and that way we can gather and not be nervous. And then when things get better they can ease the restrictions. I mean at the beginning of the summer we didn’t even have to wear masks at some of the shows. Just follow the science and just do what they tell you to do and you can have a good time.”

AfterShock’s Thompson agreed that she felt very safe thanks to the added safety precautions. “Between having wristbands to prove that either you have been vaccinated or have a negative COVID test, [it] just made me feel so much safer coming to the show and exhibiting, and everybody has been incredible about keeping their masks on at all times. I feel a lot safer than I was anticipating when we first decided that we were going to do another show again.”

One of the many hand sanitizer stations set up around the lobby of the Oregon Convention Center.

Hand-sanitizing stations were set up around the lobby area of the convention center, though they were only near the restrooms on the convention floor, something Dabb told me was handled by the convention center and not LeftField Media. “I think that a lot of vendors and artists come prepared to make sure that if people are touching, or if whatever is in their booth has that type of engagement, they’re cleaning and making sure they have the right cleaning supplies,” she said. High-traffic areas were cleaned regularly as well. “Just overall in general the convention center has been cleaning more frequently across the high-surface areas. We have tabletop gaming [and] we have cleaning going on in there, we’re cleaning after games and things that people may touch again.”

Between the steps taken by the convention center and convention organizers, the extra precautions I took for myself, and the overall positive cooperation of the other attendees, I felt very safe in attending the convention. I know that won’t be the same for everyone, and I’m not in a high-risk group when it comes to catching COVID, nor do I live with anyone who’s unvaccinated. Ultimately it’s up to every individual to decide what’s best for them in terms of attending potentially large gatherings. For the first time back to an in-person convention in over two years, though, I can’t think of a better experience to have had. I finally got to dig through $1 boxes again, and I met and chatted with people I hadn’t seen in far too long. And it’s been more than a week since the convention ended at this point and I’m still healthy, so I’m counting it as a personal win.

Rose City Comic Con was just the second convention LeftField Media has put on since the pandemic began — Washington D.C.’s AwesomeCon was held just three weeks prior, on August 20th-22nd. I asked Dabb if she thought putting on conventions under these conditions was sustainable for both organizers and fans. “Who knows what will happen in the next year,” she said plainly. “Three weeks ago this looked differently than it does today, so who knows if we’ll be in the same position next year. If we are, I think that we know that we can run this way, and that after a year I think even more people will have had the vaccine or will be used to showing proof of vaccine or negative test just because, if that’s the way we continue to go, people are going to adapt to it. So it’s definitely something we can sustain.”

A cosplayer dressed as the convention itself carries a handbag proclaiming “We’re Back”

Everyone I spoke to also expressed their enthusiasm at being back at conventions in general. Thompson put it well: “This is my first con back, and after working cons for ten years and being obsessed with comic book conventions for lots of years, it’s just so good to be back. It’s so great to be able to talk to the fans and connect with the people again, and really talk about, especially with AfterShock, all our new, incredible titles. It just feels so good to reconnect with nerds again.”

Dabb echoed the sentiment. “Overall I think we have just been so happy to be here, happy to get everybody back together. We saw throughout the last year and a half that there’s just nothing that can replace that in-person experience. We tried, a lot of our industry tried, and while our virtual content was great, it’s not the same thing, it’s not the same in-person connection, so overall we’re just happy to have been able to be here [and] happy that everybody has done what they need to do to stay safe. We’re glad to be back.”

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