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A crowd of 53,000 at a New York City anime convention spark Omicron fears

December 3, 2021, 4:43 PM UTC

Anime fans dressed up in robes, armor and colorful wigs pushed their way through throngs of people to reach the entrance of New York City’s three-day confab of Japanese pop-culture enthusiasts. 

While the event required vaccinations and indoor masking, attendees said people pushed past checkpoints and pressed together in large crowds unmasked. Now, the city is faced with warning 53,000 people who came to the November convention to ask them to immediately get tested for COVID-19 after an attendee contracted one of the first confirmed infections of the Omicron variant in the U.S. 

There’s no indication yet that there was indeed a super-spreader event at Manhattan’s Javits Center, but the massive gathering underscores how even the best-laid plans for strict health protocols can wobble when tens of thousands of people amass and pent-up demand for normalcy and excitement overtake health precautions.

“We underestimated how many fans would come early and spend every moment of the weekend in the convention center,” Anime NYC founder Peter Tatara said on Twitter. “Our fans are not to blame. This was Anime NYC’s plan failing to meet our fans’ demand.”

Test and trace

New York officials on Thursday said the attendee that contracted COVID was a vaccinated Minnesota resident who attended the conference. His case was separate from five Omicron cases identified across the state. The city said its test and trace teams began working Thursday to identify who the person came into contact with among the 53,000 attendees and other workers, vendors and artists.

The man reported attending the event from Nov. 19-21. He developed mild symptoms on Nov. 22 and was tested on Nov. 24. New York and New Jersey officials blasted messages to residents asking convention attendees to get tested and event organizers said they were working with the city.

It’s too early to think the event will turn out to be a super-spreader but the dense atmosphere and large crowds underscore the risks of hosting big events regardless of good planning and strict health protocols, said William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.

“It sounded as though they were well-intentioned, well thought out, but an unexpected crowd of people overwhelmed them, so we should learn from that,” Schaffner said.

Event organizers said they confirmed with health officials that they adequately followed state and local guidance: Attendees over age 12 were required to show proof of vaccination and younger fans had to show proof of a negative test. But the event drew 7,000 more people than the last gathering in 2019, adding to crowding issues and lack of controls at certain points. 

‘Really, really close’

Anime conventions bring together fans of Japanese animations and comics. Attendees often cosplay, dressing up as characters from shows or graphic novels.

On the first day, attendees say they stood for as long as three hours in the cold to get inside. At one point, the line collapsed and people began running toward the entrance, resulting in convention goers pressed “really, really close against other people,” said Ash Sze, a 20-year-old Tufts University student.

Jollette Merino was there with her husband, trying to hold on tightly to her two young sons. 

“Being pushed and being squished in that crowd, all you could think about is, ‘Okay, if this person does happen to be sick and they’re breathing on me, or they happen to cough or sneeze while we’re in the close vicinity, that is going to be crazy because it’s definitely going to be spreading COVID,’” the 31-year-old said. Her sons are seven and 10 years old and weren’t yet vaccinated.

She said the rush of people meant it was hard for organizers to carefully check vaccine cards or test results. Merino said a worker quickly looked at her vaccine card but didn’t look at her sons’ test results. “When we finally got inside, somebody had said, ‘this is going to be a super spreader,’” Merino said. “I looked at my husband, and I said, ‘I really hope it’s not.’”

The convention felt packed from the start, said Jennifer Williams, a 20-year-old student at Adelphi University. 

“Even if you were just going shopping in the upper area, or just getting food or walking around, it was just like—you couldn’t really walk freely anywhere around. That’s how crowded and oversold and packed it was,” she said.

Williams said she had to leave one of the most sought-after events of the convention due to overcrowding. She arrived three hours early to snag a spot at the premiere of the 1000th episode of One Piece, a popular anime show, but guards had already closed off the screening room and a mass of people had started to form.

“As I was standing there, I remember it just got denser and denser, and it started getting really uncomfortable and really hot, too,” Williams said. “The people around me didn’t have masks and we were basically—they were breathing down my neck because that’s how close everyone was.”

After about an hour she said: “I felt so trapped that I had to push everyone aside.” She left without being able to see the showing. She tested negative after the event.

COVID fatigue

Some people who went to the convention remain unruffled. There have been other conventions held during the pandemic, “so this isn’t people’s first experience of having to deal with potential COVID risks while being in mass groups of people,” said Kendle Bramble, an attendee from Long Island. 

Also, “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean came out yesterday,” the 26-year-old said, referring to a new season of an anime. “People have been way more focused on that.”

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