Conferences in the Age of COVID

Jonathan Vatner
From the January/February 2024 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Essayist Jodie Noel Vinson was finally recovering this summer after three years of “long COVID,” the lingering illness that affects some people after contracting COVID-19, when, despite misgivings, she decided to attend the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in August. Although she knew Bread Loaf’s policy of optional masking and vaccination for participants, she decided the opportunities offered by the prestigious conference outweighed the risks. But her feelings changed after her fourth full day at the conference’s campus at Middlebury College in Vermont, when she learned by e-mail from the organizers that participants had tested positive for the virus, including someone in her workshop. The next day she tested positive herself.

Participants gather for a playwriting workshop at Sewanee Writers’ Conference at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, in July 2023. (Credit: Ananda Lima)

After discovering she had COVID-19, she says, Bread Loaf organizers asked her to leave the conference. With an escalating fever, Vinson tried to alert everyone she had come in contact with, drove four hours to Providence, where she lives, and checked in to a space she booked on Airbnb so as not to infect her husband. Vinson is still upset about the way she and other COVID-positive conference participants were treated by Bread Loaf staff, who she said put the onus on the ill to care for themselves. She also faults Bread Loaf for a lack of transparency, saying e-mails updating attendees about the outbreak stopped identifying how many people had tested positive. Vinson was offended by the tone of those e-mails as well, calling them dismissive of people who needed care. Vinson believes that masking should have been required, if not at the start of the conference then after Bread Loaf staff learned attendees had tested positive.

By the end of the conference, which ran from August 16 to August 26, Bread Loaf staff had learned of twenty-eight cases of COVID among its 272 participants. Jon Reidel, a spokesperson for Middlebury, the institution that runs both Middlebury College and Bread Loaf, defended the conference’s policies. Some sick attendees were allowed to stay on campus in isolated rooms, he says. Those who believed they could safely leave campus were asked to do so, and they were refunded conference fees for the remaining days. While those who tested positive for COVID could no longer attend workshops, they were able to meet with faculty, editors, and agents via Zoom and had access to audio recordings of lectures and readings. Reidel notes that optional masking and vaccination is in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Vermont Department of Health. As for lack of transparency about the number of cases, Grotz’s August 24 e-mail explained that Middlebury’s medical advisors urged reporting only cases that lead to hospitalization. And her e-mails did alert conference-goers of the virus’s spread, strongly encouraging use of masks and offering test kits.

Yet many Bread Loaf participants and other writers condemned the conference’s COVID response on X, formerly Twitter, along the same lines as Vinson. Some critics compared Bread Loaf unfavorably with other writers conferences they say had better policies to handle the virus. On November 30, ten writers who attended the conference, including Vinson, published an open letter to Bread Loaf on the Offing asking for accountability and recommending stricter protocols to prevent the spread of COVID at future conferences; as of this writing, more than one hundred other signatories have added their names to the letter.        The debate raises questions about how literary organizations should plan for dealing with the virus as it continues to mutate and infect.   

In July, molecular microbiologist and author Joseph Osmundson attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where a COVID outbreak also occurred. Sewanee’s protocols were both more stringent and more humane than Bread Loaf’s, says Osmundson, author of Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between (Norton, 2022) and a cofounder of COVID-19 Working Group–New York, a consortium of experts that advocated for a rapid and equitable response to the pandemic.

For starters, Sewanee required masking in indoor public spaces. “Even the flu can ruin people’s experience,” says Leah Stewart, Sewanee’s director. “To the degree that we can limit that with something as simple as a mask, it makes perfect sense.” The conference did not require proof of vaccination because Tennessee made that illegal.

Still, nine people tested positive near the start of Sewanee. They were moved to an isolation dorm and had the option to attend workshops, classes, and meetings on Zoom. Once they received a negative test result, they could continue participating in person.

Gwen E. Kirby, Sewanee’s associate director of programs and finance, believes that the infections likely occurred before attendees arrived at Sewanee.

Osmundson says the conference “did a great job of not being unduly alarmist but also having strategies in place that allowed it to go on” when people did contract the virus.

The Tin House Summer Workshop, held in July at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, did not log any positive COVID cases, but its policies were also stricter than Bread Loaf’s: Tin House required attendees to provide proof of vaccination, with exemptions made on a case-by-case basis. Masking was mandatory indoors, except in well-ventilated rooms. Anyone who tested positive could attend workshops on Zoom, and they could choose to isolate in a separate dorm or to leave the campus. If anyone reported contracting COVID before the conference, Tin House allowed them to defer participation until the following year. Bread Loaf did not allow that.

“I get that workshopping with a mask is not ideal,” says Lance Cleland, executive director of the Tin House Workshops. “But it’s a good policy to do things through the lens of people who are the most vulnerable.”

Sewanee and Tin House planners expect the mask requirement to remain in the foreseeable future. Bread Loaf is reassessing its COVID policies for its 2024 conference, as it does every year, says Reidel. Other conferences have relaxed their policies. The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), for example, required vaccination and masking at its 2022 conference in Philadelphia, but at its 2023 conference in Seattle, they were optional. Medical personnel were on site to provide COVID testing and guidance; this service will be available at the 2024 conference in Kansas City, Missouri, as well.    

AWP, which typically draws eight thousand to ten thousand writers, has experienced COVID outbreaks. But Colleen Cable, AWP’s director of conferences, says the large size of the event means gathering spaces have “better airflow and filtration than a smaller venue might have”—which might reduce the chance of contracting COVID.

AWP also offers a low-cost virtual registration, which provides access to prerecorded content and live-streamed events for those who cannot or choose not to attend in-person events.

Regardless of the organization’s policies, Osmundson recommends all attendees wear a KN95 mask at any conference. He also recommends that conference organizers plan more carefully for how they will handle the virus going forward. “I don’t think it’s ethical or right to plan a conference without some robust understanding of what happens if people start getting sick,” he says. “To me, kicking people out of a conference when they’re sick is inhumane to the person and dangerous to the community.”


Jonathan Vatner is the author of The Bridesmaids Union (St. Martin’s Press, 2022) and Carnegie Hill (Thomas Dunne Books, 2019). He teaches fiction writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center.