Everything you need to know about the Countdown Improv Festival and COVID-19.

Please explain why you think it will be safe to host an in-person festival in September 2021.

As of March 30, 2020, according to the New York Times and data from the CDC, 16 percent of Americans 18 and older are fully vaccinated and 29 percent of Americans have had at least one dose. An average of 2.77 million vaccine doses are being dispensed per day, while 96 million Americans have received at least one vaccine dose. (The total U.S. population is approximately 332 million.) The president has said that 90 percent of all adults will be eligible for the vaccine by April 19, and that all adults will be eligible for the vaccine by no later than May 1. For reference, our festival dates are September 8-11, 2021.

Public health experts say that 70 to 90 percent of Americans need to manifest resistance to COVID in order for the nation to reach herd immunity. The New York Times, using data from the CDC, projects that 70 percent of Americans should be vaccinated with at least one dose by June 15 and 90 percent of Americans should be vaccinated with at least one dose by July 23, assuming that we maintain our current pace of vaccination. The pace has been steadily increasing all year and will likely continue to increase, meaning that the target date for that herd immunity threshold will push earlier and earlier.

Herd immunity is the point where viral transmission starts to sputter out on its own, due to a lack of available new hosts for the virus. Put simply, a virus wants to replicate, whereas vaccinations counteract replication. If a person contracts COVID-19, and everyone with whom they interact has been vaccinated, then there will be no one for them to pass the virus onto. This is how outbreaks die.

There are, of course, complicating factors, and we cannot be sure that America will reach herd immunity by late July. A rise in vaccine-resistant COVID variants or a substantial portion of Americans choosing not to get the vaccine could push back the target date for herd immunity. (A recent Kaiser poll found that 13 percent of respondents will “definitely not” get the vaccine, though the poll also found that skepticism of the vaccine has decreased over time.) And being vaccinated does not mean that you are completely immune to the vaccine, of course. It is still possible, although rare, to come down with COVID even after being fully vaccinated. (The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines offer approximately 95 percent protection against COVID, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine offers somewhere between 66 percent and 75 percent protection.)

What all three of the FDA-approved vaccines do, however, with close to 100 percent success, is prevent against death, hospitalization, and severe illness due to COVID. A recent study also indicates that people who had been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 90 percent less likely to become infected with COVID. This is important news, insofar as a person who has not been infected with COVID cannot transmit COVID.

Moreover, preliminary data from Israel’s Ministry of Health also indicates that the Pfizer vaccine is 94 percent effective at stopping asymptomatic transmission of the virus, meaning that a vaccinated person showing no symptoms of COVID is unlikely to transmit the virus to anyone else. (This data has not yet been subject to peer review, meaning that these findings cannot be considered definitive.) And in a March 30 interview with MSNBC, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, said that “Vaccinated people do not carry the virus — they don’t get sick,” a statement borne out “not just in the clinical trials, but it’s also in real world data.”

This is all very good news, and we feel like it means that we can cautiously and thoughtfully begin planning to host an in-person festival this September. Looking at the data that we have and the things that we can project for the upcoming months, we think that it is reasonable to assume that, by September, we will be able to hold a modified in-person festival without putting people’s lives and health at risk.

We do not take this decision lightly. COVID-19 is still a highly dangerous and transmissible disease, and cases have spiked in the United States over the last two weeks of March 2021. The CDC’s Walensky also recently spoke of her “recurring feeling of impending doom” regarding a potential new spike in infections due to premature re-openings and relaxation of mask and distancing mandates. It would not be safe or prudent to host an in-person improv festival today, at the beginning of April. We do, however, think that it will be possible to do so in five months. If it turns out that we are wrong, we will adjust our plans, cancel the in-person components of the festival, and instead host the festival online for the second year in a row.

What steps will the festival take to stay COVID-safe this year?

Quite a few:

  • We are strongly encouraging all performers to show proof of full vaccination before arriving in Tampa this year. A lot of people, especially those who are older or immunocompromised, are very nervous about re-entering the world after the past year, and understandably so. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to feel comfortable attending and participating in the life of the festival this year, and having a preponderance of our performers, staff, and volunteers being fully vaccinated prior to the festival is the easiest way for us to make sure that this happens.
  • We will be moving the festival out of the 60-seat HCC Studio Theatre and into the 260-seat HCC Mainstage Theatre for 2021. We do not plan to fill this venue to its full capacity. Shifting to a larger venue will make it easier for performers and audience members to social distance, and will reduce points of contact between performers and audience members.
  • It is hard to say what our venue’s COVID-prevention requirements will look like by September, and/or what the best practices for masking, distancing, and sanitation will be at that point. Suffice to say that we plan to follow whatever guidelines the CDC is recommending at that point, and as of April 2021 we do expect to require all festival participants to remain masked and distanced while inside the venue this September.
  • While are still working out the details of our performer social opportunities for 2021, we can at least say that we plan to try and keep them as private as possible.
  • We will have masks and hand sanitizer freely available at all festival events.

We are constantly evaluating these steps, and will revise or add to them as the situation warrants. We are also in frequent contact with peers and colleagues who run venues and events, in order to exchange thoughts and ideas regarding best practices for reopening.

This all sounds good but I still don’t feel comfortable yet.

We get it! We know that there are plenty of people out there who would theoretically like to attend the festival but at this point aren’t quite ready to consider doing so. We would suggest that these people postpone their applications until late May, and just see where the world is at that time. We don’t start evaluating submissions until the submission window is closed, so your chances of acceptance won’t be hampered if you submit late. Give it a couple of months, see how the world looks then. We’re writing this in late March, and two months ago the daily vaccination rate was less than half of what it is now. A lot can change in two months.

I have thoughts and/or questions.

Please feel free to contact us at countdownimprovfestival at gmail dot com.