Mayor Lightfoot, please impose a vaccine mandate for conferences and conventions

A mask mandate is in place for the FABTECH conference at McCormick Place. But for conferences this large, it’s impossible to enforce.

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Chicago “has strong financial incentives in favor of enacting a vaccine mandate,” writes Benny Buller, founder and CEO of Velo3D. “If conferences become super spreader events for unvaccinated people, many businesses will stop sending their teams to participate in them.”


Beginning Sept. 13, tens of thousands of people will gather for a pair of conferences at McCormick Place. My company, Velo3D, is among the sponsors. And I’m calling on Mayor Lightfoot to please enact a vaccine mandate, requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for anyone to enter these events.

It’s incumbent on government and business leaders to work together to make sure that such gatherings do not become plagues to the health of our communities. COVID cases are on the rise with the spread of the Delta variant. Deaths are spiking as well — nearly all of them of unvaccinated people. And as reports, “indoor spaces are still prime COVID hotspots.” Conferences can bring huge crowds to indoor spaces.

FABTECH, which bills itself as “North America’s largest metal forming, fabricating, welding and finishing event,” may bring in more than 48,000 people, according to its website. RAPID+TCT, which focuses on additive manufacturing, expects more than 5,000 attendees.

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A mask mandate is in place, which I appreciate. But for conferences this large it’s impossible to enforce. There are always some people who don’t wear masks or don’t wear them correctly. We’ve all seen some people go “nose commando” — leaving their noses exposed, which experts say can be dangerous, giving people a false sense of protection.

At conferences, people meet, visit booths for hands-on demonstrations, eat together, stand in lines, enter elevators and more. Social distancing measures enacted at some indoor sites can’t always be followed for large conferences.

The financial cost — and benefit

There’s no doubt that financial considerations must play a role in this decision. McCormick Place alone has scheduled well over 100 events by the end of next year, and city officials expect a multi-billion dollar impact — helping make up for some of the tremendous losses Chicago, like the rest of the country, has suffered during the pandemic.

It’s true that a vaccine mandate would upset some people. As the Sun Times’ editorial board recently wrote, “Millions of Americans continue, against all reason and the best scientific evidence, to refuse the shot — and make it that much harder to end this pandemic, for good.” Some of these people would likely cancel their participation in a conference with such a mandate.

But the city also has strong financial incentives in favor of enacting a vaccine mandate. If conferences become super spreader events for unvaccinated people, many businesses will stop sending their teams to participate in them.

Furthermore, if unvaccinated visitors to Chicago contract COVID at these conferences, they’ll be unable to board flights back to where they came from, and could easily end up in Chicago hospitals. According to a CDC study, unvaccinated people are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized. This could add to the concern recently expressed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker that hospitals in Illinois could soon be overwhelmed.

It’s obviously not just visitors who are in danger. Conferences provide jobs to many residents of Chicago and the surrounding areas, some of whom are unvaccinated. If they contract the virus, it will worsen and lengthen the economic losses from the pandemic.

Taking a stand to save lives

Obviously, what’s most important is to protect the lives of people who live and visit Chicago. Not only do these vaccines save lives in the short-term, but they can also do so in the long-term by making it more difficult for the virus to keep multiplying, creating new and more dangerous variants.

Mayor Lightfoot did the right thing in mandating vaccines for city workers. Creating a similar mandate for attendees to large indoor gatherings is a sensible next step.

My own experience suggests that the fallout from such a decision might not be as bad as some fear. In May, I announced that I had enacted a vaccine mandate for all of my 150 employees, as well as for any visitors who wished to come to our offices, such as clients and contractors. (I made an exception for people with a written medical excuse from a medical professional, and I recommend Lightfoot do the same.)

Very few people I work with expressed any problems with this. My employees overwhelmingly thanked me, saying it made them feel better about the company. It also made them want to return to the office. Perhaps most interestingly, my clients are in largely conservative industries and based in “red states.” They praised the rule, seeing it as productive and pragmatic. They understand that the more I do to keep my team healthy, the more we will pull through for our clients.

Still, there were some naysayers, and if Lightfoot does this she will face them as well. I suggest she respond as I did. Emphasize that vaccines work. That the more people get vaccinated, the faster we can get back to work, strengthening our businesses and the economy. And that we all need to pull together on this.

History is calling on leaders — in both the public and private sector — to take a stand. We must do what is right, and beat COVID once and for all.

Benny Buller is founder and CEO of Velo3D.

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