Anime Expo 2022
The Irresponsible Management of This Year's Artist Alley
by Bamboo Dong,
This year's Anime Expo generated a lot of media buzz with its pre-pandemic crowd sizes, but one thing that's largely been swept under the rug is pervasive reports of unsafe conditions in one of its biggest attendee attractions—the Artist Alley. Featuring over 500 talented artists, the space always draws tens of thousands of eager visitors, but this year, it's been marred with reports of poor ventilation, heat, and unenforced COVID protocols.
Anime Expo, the United States' largest anime convention, has been drawing crowds over 100,000 for several years, and this year—the first year the convention has been held in-person since the COVID-19 pandemic began—was no different. Photos and videos circulating online showed packed hallways and atriums with attendees crammed shoulder-to-shoulder. Of those, a sizeable percentage were unmasked despite the official signs posted at every entryway and the reminders tweeted by the convention. It wasn't any different from typical years—Anime Expo has always enjoyed bustling crowds, which some think adds to the overall atmosphere and excitement, but many in the community expressed concern over the spread of COVID-19, which is seeing another surge of infections in the U.S. as the highly contagious earlier Omicron variants are being supplanted by the somehow-even-more-contagious Omicrons BA.4 and BA.5.
Of course, there are many factors involved in community spread, including vaccination (which doesn't guarantee against infection, but drastically reduces one's chance of hospitalization and death), mask usage (which is most effective when both parties are masked, especially the one who is infectious), mask type and fit, and environmental factors such as ventilation and airflow. Regarding the first two, Anime Expo briefly changed their COVID safety guidelines in early June, but eventually reverted their decision, requiring that all attendees either show proof of full COVID vaccination or a negative test taken within 72 hours, and asking that everyone wear a mask in all indoor spaces. While these guidelines do mirror much of what has become standard in many events with large crowds, it's unfortunately not foolproof even with the best intentions—carriers can be contagious for a few days prior to showing symptoms, some may be asymptomatic, and even those who are feeling sick may not see a positive test result until 3-5 days after symptom onset, regardless of vaccination status. And despite the convention posting signs throughout the convention reminding congoers that masks were required for entry, the rules weren't enforced throughout the weekend, leading some to express frustration.
Another community spread factor, though, is ventilation. Transmission is reduced in outdoor settings where airflow tends to be high, but in indoor spaces, ventilation can vary drastically depending on different components. One attendee, who goes by the Twitter handle @nickelpin, was curious what the ventilation was like in various areas of the convention center, so she brought along a portable carbon dioxide monitor. The usage of CO2 monitors has been increasing in popularity—scientists and other data enthusiasts have been taking readings of places like airplanes and event spaces; parents have been sending their kids back to school with CO2 monitors to check the ventilation of classrooms.
The monitors measure carbon dioxide concentration and give a readout in parts per million (ppm), which gives an indication of how much CO2 is lingering in that area. As humans exhale, CO2 is released into the environment. When there's air exchange, though, that generally dissipates and is replaced with new ambient air. For reference, fresh outdoor air typically has CO2 in the range of 350-400 ppm. Well-ventilated indoor spaces tend to have readings somewhere under 1,000 ppm. (The CDC considers a value of less than 800 ppm to be well-ventilated.)
CO2 levels can also have a few different health implications. For starters, because COVID-19 is airborne, it can linger in the air long after the infected person has left the room, especially in a place where the air isn't being properly circulated. Multiplied in a large crowd where multiple people could be unmasked carriers, and you can see how the problem starts compounding. Even if COVID wasn't an issue, increased CO2 levels can still have health effects. At even 1,000-2,000 ppm, some people may experience drowsiness. Between 2,000-5,000 ppm, people can start getting headaches, nausea, loss of concentration, increased heart rate, and general feelings of air staleness. (For environments where the CO2 level is 5,000 ppm, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration [OSHA] sets a maximum exposure limit of 8 hours.)
While most of the areas occupied by Anime Expo were within the 800-1,500 ppm range, with a couple corners reaching the upper 1,000s (you can read @Nickelpin's recap here or scroll through her timeline for more details), there were a couple of notable exceptions. Namely, Artist Alley, which for the past few AXes has been located in Kentia Hall on the basement level of the Los Angeles Convention Center.
There's no data for the first two days of the convention, as @Nickelpin's Day 1 original visit was cut abruptly short when CO2 readings jumped past 2,400 ppm en route there. When she finally made it on the third day, she was surprised to see the readings spike.
CO2 levels inside Artist Alley were a staggering 4,202 ppm, with the second-to-last row reaching 4,740 ppm. The quiet hallway between the doors of Kentia Hall, where many attendees would sit, relax, and eat clocked in at 4,171 ppm.
"I was really shocked at the numbers down in the AA," said @Nickelpin when we reached out. "Like, it just kept rising and rising and I thought maybe there was something wrong with my meter but when I left the floor and went back to the South Hall lobby and even out the doors they went back to the numbers I had been seeing."
For transparency, she uses an Aranet4 from Naltic Industrials, which comes calibrated right out of the box. She had used it before in places like grocery stores and a restaurant, and decided to bring it to Anime Expo. "If I was going to [try to come back to AX], I'd do it as safely as would be possible on my end of responsibility." She was curious what the CO2 levels were in different parts of the convention, and wanted to see if there were places with better ventilation.
Beyond just a scientific curio, though, her findings raise concerns about the safety conditions in and around Kentia Hall, especially inside Artist Alley where artists, helpers, and other vendors manned booths for 8 hours on Days 1-3 and five hours on the last day, not including setup and teardown. A look at the Aranet4's Quick Start Guide shows their air quality guide, listing anything over 1,400 ppm as “Unhealthy.” The guide also cites a 2016 Harvard study published in Environmental Health Perspective that showed 50% decreased cognitive function scores amongst test participants at CO2 concentrations of ~1,400 ppm.
Adding to this was scattered claims of heat exhaustion on the first day, with artists and attendees in some sections of the hall repeatedly asking staff members to ensure that the air conditioning was turned on. While some artists we talked to (who had booths near the front of Kentia) said that their area was consistently cool throughout the weekend, others with booths near the center and back of the hall reported sweltering temperatures on the first day. Multiple artists claimed that they were told by AX staff that the air conditioning had accidentally been set to Energy Saving Mode, but we have not yet been able to independently verify that as of this writing.
One artist, Ivory Ice, confirmed that the temperature improved after the AC was increased on Day 2, but said it was still humid: “For the rest of the con, it wasn't as extreme, but it was still hot/humid. Never felt like the AC was really on.” Another artist, who wished to remain anonymous, added, “Day 1 was really hot. They were supposedly told to crank up the A/C several times throughout the day, but never did until Day 2.” A different artist, Julie S, said she almost passed out twice the first day and was drenched in sweat from the heat. One artist tweeted a plea to AX to ask if they'd be turning on the AC, saying that her body temperature had reached 99.6°F and that she had to leave her table on Day 1 due to symptoms of heat exhaustion. Yet another artist told us she witnessed several vendors who were red-faced and dripping in sweat.
Outside of Day 1 heat-related effects, some artists reported feeling ill throughout the weekend with various non-COVID symptoms that subsided after they left the convention center each day. Since the end of the convention, a spreadsheet being shared amongst Artist Alley participants has shown increasing numbers of artists self-reporting headaches, drowsiness, and trouble concentrating, which could potentially be related to the high levels of CO2 in Kentia Hall.
One veteran artist who wanted to remain anonymous told us she had two panic attacks and a spell of nausea and vertigo, and had to rely on helpers so that she could take breaks outside the convention center. "It was worst on Saturday and Sunday, just kinda feeling like you're breathing but not actually getting air." She said her booth was located near a wall with three feet of space behind her, which made it more unusual to her that she felt she couldn't breathe. She confirmed that she had not felt this way at other conventions or previous Anime Expos. Ivory Ice reported feeling ill even during setup, saying she needed to sit for over an hour because she felt like she needed to vomit, and it took her longer to accomplish routine tasks. Another artist, Shattered-Earth, told us she had "rough headaches and some light-headedness" on Saturday, as did a few of her friends. She found it unusual because she very rarely got headaches. She, too, had not felt this way at previous AXes or at other cons where she also tables. One artist who elected to remain anonymous said she had uncharacteristic feelings of exhaustion throughout the convention; her partner was so drowsy he fell asleep in his chair.
Another frustration for artists, who pay Anime Expo almost $500 to have a table at Artist Alley, was the lack of enforcement of the mask requirement. Although the convention explicitly stated online and with signage that masks were required for entry, large swaths of attendees were unmasked throughout the convention. Even personnel working with the convention, from volunteers to staff to LACC-provided security guards, were frequently unmasked, even in extremely crowded areas where attendees were pressed together. While the state of California no longer has an indoor mask mandate, it still "strongly recommends" masks for everyone at indoor events that have more than 1,000 people.
One of the artists asked a staff member about masking, only to be told that in accordance with local laws regarding public spaces, AX was not allowed to enforce the mask requirement or even make a PA announcement. However, while LA County no longer has a broad indoor mask mandate, the Public Health department's mask page states that people are still required to wear masks in some public spaces (transportation, transportation hubs, healthcare setting, etc.) including "any other location where it is the policy of the business or venue." We have not received a response from anyone at Anime Expo that ANN reached out to for comment.
Artists felt resigned to take matters into their own hands to minimize their own personal risk in close quarters. Many posted signs saying, “No Mask, No Service,” and while some attendees obliged, others were combative. Of the artists we spoke with, many shared similar stories. Shattered-Earth estimated that some 50% obliged, but immediately removed their masks once they left her table. Some attendees said they didn't have a mask at all, despite AX requirements for convention center entry, while some even tried to use their shirts before being turned away. Others circumvented the artists' requests simply by asking their masked friends to make the purchase. Some were simply rude; one artist who asked to remain anonymous said she was angrily flipped off after an attendee refused to put on a mask.
The frustrations over masking seemed to center on one main pain point, namely that AX's COVID protocols explicitly state that "all attendees of Anime Expo will be required to wear approved face coverings, regardless of vaccination status, at all times unless in outdoor areas or actively drinking and eating." Policies like this factor into each artists' individual risk assessments on whether to attend the show, even though by the time the convention briefly dropped then reinstated the policy, tables were already non-refundable. Several of the California-based artists we spoke to expressed dismay that mask enforcement was such an issue at Anime Expo, saying that recent conventions like Fanime (held in San Jose this past May) had, in their opinion, done a good job of enforcing their own mask requirement.
It's worth stating that not all artists shared similar concerns; some were unmasked throughout the weekend themselves, as were some vendors in the main exhibit hall. Many, regardless of personal masking, did not turn away unmasked customers, although some expressed that they felt they could not do so financially. The veteran artist we spoke to said she counted herself as being fortunate enough to be able to take that financial hit. “A lot of other artists don't have that kind of luxury,” she added.
Artist Merrymint, who has a degree in public health and a Masters in occupational therapy and who also tabled at this year's AX, estimated that approximately 60% of attendees who passed her table were either unmasked or wearing masks incorrectly, especially as the heat built up throughout the day. One customer told her she "would have worn a mask if she knew it was needed," an interaction that stood out to Merrymint only because the attendee had told her she felt lightheaded and dizzy. She added that she felt there was "an aura of willful ignorance by a majority of convention attendees regarding wearing masks despite it being there when purchasing tickets." We have not been able to independently survey or verify the number of attendees at Anime Expo who were either unmasked, or not masked properly, and do not know if behavior was different in various areas of the convention center.
Despite the conditions inside Kentia Hall, artists were quick to point out the general helpfulness of the AX staffers assigned to help in Artist Alley. One artist said that the staffers assigned to her row were "really helpful" and "very kind," and checked to make sure aisles were clear for fire safety compliance and that sellers had their permits. Merrymint said that staff checked on her table and helped the vendors next to her get water, but did not aid in reminding visitors to wear masks. She believes that Anime Expo “failed to do their due diligence with upholding what they guaranteed to vendors, artists, and attendees: enforcement of their own policies” and worried it would set a negative precedent for other conventions around the country.
As of this writing, we have not yet received any comments from Anime Expo or the press relations firm working with them as to whether or not they have been made aware of the CO2 readings, or what communication they have had with the LA Convention Center, but we will update the story to reflect new information.
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