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Embassies get creative to host events during a pandemic

Embassies get creative to host events during a pandemic
(From left) Chartese Berry, President of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Dave Johnson, DC United Announcer, Judy Mulcahy, the event's Executive Committee Chair, and Austrian Ambassador Martin Weiss give a toast at the National MS Society's annual Ambassadors Ball on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. (Photo by Tony Powell)

Every employee at the Embassy of Austria has received the COVID-19 vaccine, said Martin Weiss, the Austrian ambassador to the United States. As a result, the embassy has recently begun to fully staff their offices again.

“The space of the embassy is such that pretty much everybody can social distance,” Weiss told The Washington Diplomat. Employees do take added precautions, such as regularly disinfecting their hands and wearing masks around visitors.

But in spite of (or perhaps because of) the mission’s cautious response to the pandemic, Weiss said the embassy will change up its annual national day celebration this year. Usually, the embassy hosts a 400- to-500 person gala, with music, singing and speeches throughout the night.

“In place of a larger event, we plan to host a series of smaller dinners to commemorate the day,” Weiss said, citing ongoing concerns over COVID-19.

The Embassy of Austria is far from alone in being forced to rethink how they work in the midst of a global pandemic.

Even as missions across Washington resume their in-person operations, the pandemic continues to curb larger events and national day celebrations throughout the diplomatic community. The responses vary drastically — a reflection in some ways of how everyone is struggling to keep up with a constantly changing health crisis.

A host of options

Like the Embassy of Austria, the German Embassy has taken similar precautions for its day-to-day operations. The embassy offers employees the option to work from home and provides masks, hand sanitizer and ample space for social distancing.

Unlike Austria, however, the German Embassy took a different approach to its Unity Day on Oct. 3, when the country commemorates the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990.

Rather than hosting a large celebration at the ambassador’s residence as it has in previous years, or smaller in-person gatherings as many embassies are doing now, the German Embassy produced a short video paying tribute to the historical significance of the day.

Other embassies have released videos during the pandemic as well, while others have turned to full-scale virtual events and discussions.

The Chinese Embassy took the digital approach to celebrate its national day on Sept. 28, hosting an online reception filled with speeches and music in tandem with each of its consulates. Tickets were made available ahead of the event.

As vaccines became more widespread, however, many embassies shifted from strictly virtual events to resuming in-person gatherings — albeit on a smaller scale. The British, Italian, Japanese and Swedish embassies are just some of the embassies that have returned to hosting in-person receptions.

Another is Spain, which decided to continue with its national day celebration on Oct. 12 but with a reduced number of guests, although it’s didn’t breaking up its reception into several smaller events like the Austrian Embassy did.

Smaller receptions have been key to many ambassadors looking to network with members of the Biden administration who have come to office since January. As numerous ambassadors have told us over the last several months, meeting people through a virtual platform like Zoom is simply not the same as getting to know someone face to face.

Some embassies that were especially active on the arts and culture scene — such as the Czech Republic, France, Mexico, South Korea and Spain — have also begun reopening to the public for exhibitions, concerts and talks.

The decisions on how to hold events are fluid and ongoing — much like the pandemic itself. Many embassies are still forming plans for upcoming celebrations. In the case of the Oman, for example, the embassy definitively ruled out hosting an in-person gathering to commemorate its upcoming national day. However, the embassy told The Diplomat that it has not yet decided on a potential replacement.

“We are looking for creative alternatives and ways to celebrate,” said Isam Alibrahim, a spokesperson for the Omani Embassy.

Exceeding expectations

Some embassies are still taking a cautious, small-is-better — or wait-and-see — approach to in-person events, but a few have opened up to larger crowds.

That includes France, which hosted a large party at the ambassador’s Kalorama residence to inaugurate “Little Lady Liberty,” a miniature replica of the original statue in New York.

To allay safety concerns, the French Embassy required all guests to either provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test to enter.

It’s a growing trend among large event venues in D.C.: Show your vaccine card or your test results if you to get inside. Another creative workaround is to host events outside, where the chances of spreading the coronavirus are much lower.

These various strategies are being adopted by the organizers of the city’s balls and galas, many of which went virtual last year but are back to in-person this year.

Among them is the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which opted to hold its 43rd annual Ambassadors Ball on Sept. 30 under an outdoor tent this year.

Guests of the National MS Society’s annual Ambassadors Ball bid on items at the event’s auction. (Photo by Tony Powell)

“The event absolutely exceeded my expectations,” said Chartese Berry, president of the National MS Society’s Greater DC-Maryland Chapter. The ball took place outside at The Wharf’s District Pier in Southwest D.C. Roughly 350 people attended the sold-out event.

Several COVID-19 regulations were put in place. Prior to arriving, the National MS Society required all guests to fill out a questionnaire about symptoms and potential exposure to the coronavirus. Despite being outdoors, all guests were instructed to wear a mask unless eating or drinking, although no negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination was required.

Berry said there were no major issues with guests complying with the protocols. “I like to think that our guests are rather mature, both in age and in sophistication,” she said. “We really were not expecting any major issues for the evening either, because we believed that a mature audience would be better about complying to standards.”

As in past years, ambassadors turned out for the event, with roughly 20 envoys in attendance. Martin Weiss of Austria gave the ambassadorial toast at the dinner in place of French Ambassador Philippe Étienne.

Étienne was to be the honorary chair of the annual ball, which pays honors the work of diplomats, but ironically he was recalled to Paris after a diplomatic snub in which the U.S. announced it was selling nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, negating a multibillion-dollar contract that the French had with the Australians.

Evolving entry requirements

Other large event organizers are increasingly opting to require proof of vaccination or some other form of COVID verification for all guests. It’s an ever-evolving debate on which protocols and mandates to implement.

With the spread of the Delta variant, some companies such as I.M.P., the operator of the D.C. area’s most prominent venues, have shifted from requiring a vaccine card or a negative COVID test to only allowing fully vaccinated individuals to enter, given that COVID tests are not 100% accurate in determining if a person is infected.

Other venues are taking more of a hybrid approach, using a mix of vaccination, testing, temperature screening and other strategies.

That’s what the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GWHCC) did with its annual Business Expo on Sept. 16. Approximately 800 people attended the event, and 400 more were in the building working at the expo.

For the expo, the GWHCC hired two separate organizations: The CALPRO Group helped to facilitate the actual expo, while the SBTS Group ran a kiosk to monitor and enforce the event’s COVID-19 protocols.

To attend, guests either had to provide proof of vaccination or submit to having their body temperature taken. If any individual’s temperature exceeded 99.2 degrees Fahrenheit, the SBTS would conduct a rapid antigen test, which takes roughly 10 minutes to complete.

On the whole, Ted Nebiyeloul, vice president of operations and procurement for the SBTS Group, said the event went off without any hiccups. “There is a small portion of the population that will always be resistant to any form of COVID-19 testing,” he told us. “But on the whole there were no real issues. Most people were fine.”

In the past, the SBTS Group has worked with large venues to help host sporting events and high-profile gatherings. Its technology is even equipped to handle comprehensive COVID-19 data tracking for entire nations, said Evelyn Ajibola Lewis, CEO of the SBTS Group. “We’ve been refining this technology since the Ebola virus,” Lewis said.

While the SBTS Group focused on collecting and processing the data necessary to monitor the expo, the CALPRO Group, an event management firm, provided the manpower to act on the data.

“One thing we pride ourselves in is our customer service,” said Socrates Calá, an event planner with the firm. “We assist guests in a way where, even though they might not want to wear a mask or follow instructions, they do because of how we present it to them.”

At least eight embassies contributed to the Business Expo. The SBTS Group has already received several notifications about possible collaborations with embassies in the near future, and the CALPRO Group is already engaged in several government contracts.

Frank Quaranta