Hard-hit by COVID-19, convention centres are once again seeing lines of people eagerly waiting to gain entry. But unlike in ‘normal’ times, they’re not there to attend a ‘typical’ event. Rather, thousands are flocking to these facilities to take a jab in the arm to protect themselves from the potentially deadly virus.
The Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC) is among several events venues across the country that have pivoted for the public good. Canada’s largest convention and meeting facility opened its doors to seniors 80 and up on March 13, as a city-run mass vaccination clinic, and has seen a steady stream of visitors of varying ages ever since.
“Our team is proud to support the City of Toronto and the province by hosting the biggest COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Ontario,” says MTCC CEO, Lorenz Hassenstein. “We’re committed to helping our community and the events industry in any way we can. Over the past year, we have served as a courtroom, a flu vaccination clinic and now a COVID vaccination site.”
MTCC was one of only three mass immunization sites green-lighted in mid-March to offer publicly-available vaccination opportunities. Others included the Toronto Congress Centre and Scarborough Town Centre. The centres operate seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Three more city-run clinics are now in operation — Malvern Community Recreation Centre, Mitchell Field Arena and the Hangar sports complex in North York’s Downsview Park area. The city is preparing to open three more sites as vaccine supply becomes available.
As of April 8, more than 665,000 vaccine doses have been administered in Toronto.
Setting up a large-scale clinic outside a healthcare setting is a complex process, albeit a necessary measure to achieve rapid enough vaccination to stop the pandemic. There are a variety of considerations, from clinic layout, traffic flow, and vaccine storage and handling to on-site infection control measures, options for managing emergency situations like anaphylaxis, recipient enrollment, administration and more.
“We work closely with Toronto Public Health to ensure their health and safety guidelines are strictly followed,” says Hassenstein. “This includes (but is not limited to) physical distancing, cleaning protocols, room set up, and where exits and entrances are located.”
Additional safety measures are access to alcohol-based hand sanitizer and face coverings for people who arrive without one, among others.
“Optimizing health and safety for any event is our top priority,” says Hassenstein. “Fortunately, our team has extensive experience in ensuring every detail of an event is seamless.”
MTCC’s enhanced safe events guide, Onward, helped ready the venue to serve as a mass vaccination site and continues to inform it throughout operation. Onward was developed in consultation with Toronto Public Health and is aligned with the public guidelines provided by the provincial government and the events industry. It outlines stringent procedures MTCC is taking to provide a safe, clean and healthy environment today. These same standards will be followed when events are deemed safe to resume.
Certified meeting planner Kate Kelly is looking forward to such time and believes the vaccine rollout is essential to the return of in-person events.
“It will provide both health and safety benefits and ease of mind,” says Kelly, president of the Canadian Society of Professional Event Planners (CanSPEP). “We already see changes in clients’ feelings. They are starting discussions about future live events and what they may look like in our new world of ‘normal’.”
But while widespread vaccination is important, Kelly acknowledges it’s not a panacea to haul the industry out of the current health crisis. Detailed data is still lacking on the vaccines, their efficacy and protection duration, so health and safety measures must be continued even after mass vaccination is conducted.
Patience is also key, says Kelly, as is guidance from federal and provincial government agencies on parameters, rules and regulations. To get these right, it’s important that events industry leaders and representatives have a seat at the table, she adds.
“No one knows events, logistics and managing people better than event professionals.”
Unfortunately, many have been deeply affected by the pandemic, having lost their jobs or been sidelined, says Kelly. While some have successfully pivoted to producing virtual events for clients, others have left the profession to take employment elsewhere, at least in the interim. As a result, one of the greatest challenges the industry faces is getting those people to return once events come back, she says. Another is building confidence among clients and the public that face-to-face meetings and events can happen safely. However, Kelly’s optimistic.
“Event professionals have weathered ‘storms’ before and continue to come out the other side strong, better educated and able to offer more services to their clients and the industry as a whole,” she says.