A Look Back at #AWP20 in San Antonio

Receently, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs sent out a survey. They didn’t ask specifically about the conference, but their last question asked about our experiences in the past month or so. That was probably wise, since not everyone on their list went to the conference or was even planning to go, but asking that question gave me the opportunity to put some thoughts together about the conference. Here’s what I said (edited and then expanded on for this blog post):

We came to #AWP20 in San Antonio, and I felt AWP did the best they could with the information they had at the time. In hindsight, events like ours should have been cancelled in February, but with two days’ notice and everyone scrambling to cancel hotel and airline reservations (when it wasn’t yet clear that could be done), and with product shipped to the book fair, it was right to keep the conference on for those who wanted or needed to come. We haven’t heard of anyone getting sick from attending, so we apparently dodged that bullet unlike some other conferences at about the same time. I don’t blame AWP. If the national response had been clearer, they would have known in plenty of time that they had to cancel, and they would have done it.

Of course, everyone knew that the virus was out there. What we didn’t know was that what we had been told was wrong. We were given the impression that the virus was contained in a very few places and most of the U.S. was still safe. That was clearly incorrect. What we learned two days before the conference was that someone from an air base near San Antonio had been released from quarantine, stayed at a San Antonio Hotel, and then tested positive for the virus and sent back to quarantine. What we should have known was that the virus was out in places like Boston and New York, not just isolated in Seattle and a few people in quarantine. We should have known that travelers from Europe and the Middle East, not just from China, could be carriers. We should have had testing that would have let us know the true risks of public gatherings. We were just starting to learn that on March 2 when the news broke about the sick woman who had been released into San Antonio for about 24 hours that weekend and when the mayor of San Antonio declared a medical disaster (to keep other quarantined patients from being released).

I am glad for the many people who stayed away from the AWP conference, and I’m glad that AWP allowed anyone to cancel their registration at the last minute, which made that possible. I am glad that half our group went to the conference — we had a great, if surreal, experience, and none of us caught the virus or spread it. But we could have.

With better information, we probably would have made different decisions, but actually with better information, we wouldn’t have had to make a decision. AWP wouldn’t have been one of the first groups to face a decision about their conference. They would have known the risks well in advance and been able to cancel responsibly with enough time to give everyone a chance to cancel reservations or not ship their merchandise to the conference book fair. There would have been a national order to limit social gatherings that would have forced large conferences to cancel or postpone. That still hasn’t happened, but states and most groups have stepped up and made the difficult decisions anyway.

#AWP20 was right on the cusp of that happening. While we were in San Antonio, we learned that South by Southwest had cancelled. Other major events and venues soon followed, including the NBA and NCAA basketball tournaments. If our conference had been a week later or if we had gotten good information in the weeks leading up to the conference, we would have been one of the ones to cancel instead of one of the last to go forward and make the best of things. I’m glad we did what we did, and I’m very glad the virus didn’t seem to be spread at our conference, as it was at CPAC, AIPAC, and BioGen, other prominent conferences held about the same time. But I wish that we and all the other conferences had been given the information we needed to make better decisions, and I really wish that the U.S. response to COVID-19 had been led by science and testing and not by misinformation and denial.

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