Masks were a rarity at the 2021 Sea Air Space convention, held Aug. 1-4 just outside Washington, D.C.

Masks were a rarity at the 2021 Sea Air Space convention, held Aug. 1-4 just outside Washington, D.C. Marcus Weisgerber / Defense One

As Delta Variant Spreads, Trade Shows Impose Mask Mandates

The Association for the U.S. Army said it will not limit attendance unless required by the local government.

Military and defense trade organizations are pushing ahead with plans to hold in-person conferences this fall, despite the uptick in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.

The Association of the U.S. Army, which organizes the country’s largest military trade show, said attendees at its October event will be required to wear face masks, per COVID restrictions in the nation’s capital.

“Participants at the in-person AUSA Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. will be required to wear masks at all times, except when actively eating or drinking,” the organization said in an email Wednesday. The organization added that there will be no limit on attendance and that “social distancing will be implemented where possible.” 

That was not the case at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference last week, where a largely maskless crowd was, at times, packed shoulder to shoulder in the conference’s exhibit hall. 

There’s been a demand within the defense community to hold in-person events, largely for the networking opportunities. The events are the prime revenue source for trade associations; defense companies collectively spend millions of dollars for exhibit hall space and attendance fees.

For instance, the Navy League’s 2019 Sea-Air-Space convention generated $6.1 million in revenue for the organization, according to its latest tax documents ​​posted by GuideStar, an information service that reports on U.S. nonprofit companies. In 2019, annual events netted $15.8 million in revenue for the Association of the U.S. Army, according to tax records. The Air Force Association reported conference revenue of $6.7 million from its conferences.

Tax forms for 2020 are not yet available to compare revenue totals from the virtual events each organization held last year due to the pandemic. Virtual events typically generate far less revenue; however, there are also fewer overhead costs since no facilities or food are needed.

Late last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended masks be worn indoors in substantial or high-transmission areas, after data showed vaccinated individuals can transmit the Delta variant of the virus. In earlier guidance, the CDC had said vaccinated people did not need to wear masks indoors.

When the Navy League’s trade show began last week at the Gaylord resort  at National Harbor in Maryland, just outside the Washington Beltway, the CDC listed Prince George’s County as having a “moderate” level of COVID transmission. But things changed quickly. 

On Aug. 2, the CDC reclassified the county as having a “substantial” level of transmission. This week, it’s been listed at the highest level of transmission.

The week before the Sea-Air-Space conference, the Navy League sent an email to attendees warning “exhibitors and attendees to exercise caution, as this is a large-scale, indoor event with global participants of all different vaccination statuses.”

Despite that warning, face masks were sparse in the crowded exhibit hall, though some companies limited the number of people allowed in their exhibit booths and required employees working those booths to wear masks.

The Air Force Association, which is scheduled to hold its annual convention at the same resort next month, hasn’t updated its COVID-19 protocols, but is making attendees sign a well-being agreement and liability waiver. Prince George’s County put a mask mandate in place for indoor events earlier this week as COVID cases spread throughout the region. 

On Tuesday, the Space Foundation, which holds the Space Symposium annually in Colorado Springs, said it “is currently directing that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks at indoor settings that are part of the” event.

While vaccines or negative COVID tests are not required to attend events, AUSA said it “will be prepared for these potential additional requirements if mandated by the District of Columbia.”

The U.S. Defense Department requires all individuals to wear masks inside the Pentagon.