WordCamp Birmingham’s organizers announced today that the in-person event planned for the first week in February is now postponed until April or May. Organizers had been planning the event since August 2021 and had just announced the last group of speakers a week ago.
“In the last 30 days, our local COVID-19 numbers have risen dramatically as a result of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant,” lead organizer Ryan Marks said in the announcement.
“The WordPress community is bigger than any single WordCamp. We cannot in good conscience continue forward with our event, given the current risk, since this decision could negatively impact other in-person WordCamps currently in the planning stages.”
Marks said all attendees will be automatically refunded within the next few days. WordPress Community Support administrator Angela Jin has prepared an official letter for those who need proof of cancellation for getting travel refunded.
WordCamp Birmingham organizers are looking at dates in April or May, 2022, but said that rescheduling will depend on local infection rates and venue availability. Their contract with the Sidewalk Film Center + Cinema allowed organizers to cancel without any loss of deposit as long as they gave more than seven days notice.
The event’s COVID-19 safety protocols, which were written before Omicron was spreading in the area, came under greater scrutiny a week ago. Shortly thereafter, organizers updated the guidelines to have a more rigid masking requirement, but some attendees and sponsors had already decided not to attend due to current conditions.
While WordCamp Birmingham organizers worked to update the COVID-19 safety protocols, more concerned community members condemned the gathering as “irresponsible” at a time when hospitals have been pushed to the brink.
Organizers continued to monitor the situation, hoping for the opportunity to hold a safe event. After assessing the timing of the event and the level of community spread, they unanimously decided to that it was necessary to postpone. They had also reached the point where some of their payments would have been nonrefundable and needed to act in stewardship of their funds.
“We knew that being the first in-person US WordCamp was both a risk and a responsibility,” lead organizer Ryan Marks said. “If we could do it safely, other WordCamps in the US could do the same. If lots of people got sick, we’d set back US WordCamps such as Montclair, NJ, and Buffalo, NY, and possibly the global program as a whole from moving toward having safe in-person WordCamps.
“We saw news reports and estimates indicating Omicron cases would be peaking right as we were hosting WordCamp. That was sufficient for our organizing team to make the call to postpone. Pushing the event a couple months could mean a much safer event for everyone.”
Alabama has the second lowest percentage of vaccinated residents in the US, with just 48.1% fully vaccinated. The state currently has an average positive test rate of 37.4%. More than 25% of Alabama students have shifted to remote learning as more school systems have had to close due to record-breaking COVID rates.
“Our problem is we just don’t have enough adults to safely and effectively operate the school…in some cases, now we’re seeing up to 35% of the faculty report that they have COVID, or they’re close contact,” Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey told AL.com. The local mitigation efforts are not working to slow the spread of Omicron in the Birmingham area right now.
Many attendees communicated their disappointment about the postponed WordCamp on social media but were supportive of the organizers’ decision.
When WordCamp Birmingham’s organizers began planning in August, they had no idea that a new more transmissible variant would be making its way across the world just as the in-person event was set to kick off. The timing is unfortunate, and the stakes are too high to risk pushing forward.
WordCamp Birmingham’s previously selected speakers will be invited to speak at the rescheduled event, pandemic conditions permitting. The 200 people who signed up to attend will need to buy their tickets again and reschedule their accomodations.
“Our goal is to have the same great event we have currently planned, just a bit later,” Marks said.