I’ve just returned from a convention of nearly 700 people. I feared coronavirus less than I do in my daily life. Except for one thing.

The day before I got back from the ACP/CMBAM College Journalism Convention in San Francisco, the nation’s largest physics convention was cancelled at the last minute.

The American Physical Society decided Saturday to call off its Denver convention that was supposed to begin today, “due to rapidly escalating health concerns relating to the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).”

But I felt safer among 700 students in the Hyatt Regency San Francisco than I did right outside the hotel.

Fear the locals

The Hyatt is across the street from the famed Ferry Building Marketplace, which sells some amazing food – from honey wine to vegan donuts to a store featuring nothing but mushrooms.

To get in, you pull heavy glass-and-metal doors that thousands of strangers have touched all day long. Once inside, I stood and sat closer to people than I did during any convention session I attended or presented.

In fact, between hotel and convention staff, I felt healthier inside the Hyatt Regency than anywhere outside it. The water tables near the meeting rooms had large pump jars of Purell hand sanitizer. Many sessions left their doors open, so you didn’t need to touch the handles. And in the Hyatt men’s rooms, I saw more guys washing their hands than I did in the Ferry Building men’s room. (Probably because we all wore name tags.)

I’m a journalist not a virologist, but I feel like you have a better chance of contracting coronavirus outside a convention than inside it. Except if you pick up a convention bag.

Stuff this tradition

Most conventions have a longstanding tradition called “bag stuffing.” It’s a both a social bonding exercise and a cheap, quick way to prep a convention. Works like this…

  • The day before a convention, volunteers and paid staff meet in a hotel ballroom or anteroom.
  • They unbox hundreds or thousands of totebags. Attendees receive these bags at registration, which contain sponsored goodies ranging from pens and notebooks all the way up to thumb drives and aluminum water bottles. But they don’t come pre-stuffed. Someone has to load them up.
  • So staff and volunteers also open dozens of boxes of fliers and goodies that each sponsor shipped to the hotel.
  • Boxes are set in rows on up to a dozen tables. Volunteers are stationed at each box.
  • One volunteer picks up a bag, adds a flier or goody, and passes it to the next. The assembly line ends with volunteers stacking the full bags behind the registration tables.

Thus, your convention bag could’ve passed through more germy hands than the doors of the Ferry Building. One sick volunteer could theoretically infect every convention attendee.

As coronavirus spreads through the United States, I predict this practical, congenial tradition will become one of the early victims – and won’t return even after the epidemic is over.

If coronavirus does indeed kill bag stuffing, that would be a tragic death. In San Francisco and at many other conventions, I’ve reconnected with old friends and made new ones during bag stuffing. But I wouldn’t be surprised if future conventions go DIY – grab your own bag and go down the line stuffing it yourself.