A Return to Cons: In-Person Fan Conventions During COVID

Like many fans the world over, one of my losses in 2020 was going to conventions. I have loved everything about cons for years, from discovering new favorites in artist alley, to listening to people discuss what they’re passionate about on panels, and checking out other fans’ creative cosplays. When the coronavirus hit and everything shut down, so did cons. And even though some adapted to present on digital platforms, it just wasn’t quite the same.

Most cons in early 2021 were either postponed or cancelled, though a handful went forward. Then things started to look more positive. COVID infection rates were going down as vaccination rates rose. More cons were scheduled to happen in the second half of the year. Even amid news of the Delta Variant, it seemed like we were overall on an upswing.

When I got the notification that my local con, Washington DC’s Awesome Con, would be happening in person, I immediately pulled out the cosplay I’d planned for 2020 and started brainstorming new ones, too. The weeks prior to the con were filled with news about rising numbers in the DC area, and yet, Awesome Con wasn’t canceled or postponed like last year.

This past Friday, I pulled on a costume I’d been waiting over a year to wear, and I ventured into the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, not exactly sure what a con amid a global pandemic was going to look like.

I’ll give the organizers of Awesome Con a lot of credit. Even before the Delta Variant was picking up, the rules were clear that all attendees would have to be masked up. Extra hand sanitizer stations were placed throughout the convention center. Celebrities determined their own policies for fan encounters. While proof of vaccination wasn’t required, it was encouraged and those of us who were able to provide it got a free pin. But, despite all that, it’s pretty hard to be socially distant at a con, even one with fewer people.

And speaking of fewer people…

Awesome Con has boasted as many as 70,000 attendees in years past. Even though official numbers haven’t ben released yet, it was obvious that there were definitely far fewer fans, panelists, and exhibitors at this year’s con. Even at peak on Saturday, there was barely a line to enter the convention center. While the expo hall floor was still packed, it was far easier to navigate than in previous years. At almost every panel I went to, there were extra chairs, and not just because staff and crew requested we leave one seat open between groups for social distancing.

Now, I mean this as no criticism of the panelists at the con, but the offerings this year seemed a little…sparser than in years past. Maybe I’m looking through rose-tinted glasses, but I remember there being more celebrities the last time I went. Back in 2019, I barely had a moment to breathe among all the panels I wanted to attend. This year, while there was plenty of interesting content, I was missing the urgency I felt in the past to do everything.

I left the con feeling only a small amount of guilt at rubbing elbows (sometimes literally) with so many people. Mostly, I felt exhilarated to have been able to do something so normal, and I was thrilled that I had been able to disappear into the fantasy of a con again. The full con experience certainly isn’t back, and who knows if we will ever return to the pre-COVID “normal.” But despite my reservations, I was able to have an awesome time and stayed safe.