Can you turn down an in-person meeting during a pandemic? This is what the experts say

Back in the day (and by back in the day I mean as recently as February 2020, pre-public awareness of COVID-19 risks), canceling or rescheduling in-person events was something of a regular practice if not hobby for some folks. For these slippery socializers, planning a lunch date or meeting meant casually adding a date and time to their respective calendars. What followed was a series of sparring and rescheduling until they finally rescheduled and then cemented a date neither could cancel anymore. 

In a post-coronavirus world where most of us have been working from home for months, easing back into the work world might also mean being summoned to meetings or invited to work-related mini cocktail parties. And planning events…and the myriad places where you might be expected to be in close proximity to people when you just can’t handle that level of anxiety anymore. 

So, what happens when the big boss or head of HR at the company of your dreams summons you into a meeting? Unlike even a few months ago, you don’t have to go. But you should create a contingency plan that proves you’re professional and not slacking off.

It’s not rude to say no

Before you start worrying that saying no brands you someone who’s not a team player, the old rules no longer apply. “COVID-19 has changed a lot about how we interact with others,” explained etiquette consultant Arden Clise, author of Spinach in Your Boss’s Teeth: Essential Etiquette for Professional Success. In fact, Clise explained that “What would have been considered rude before the pandemic is now simply common sense and self-preservation.”

Suggest safer meeting options

If your boss is gung-ho about a meeting, present your own thoughts on how to make it safer. From sitting in marked circles six feet away from other attendees, to taking your temperature before entering a room, there are all kinds of safety precautions popping up at even semi-public events. Cvent, a meetings, events, and hospitality management tech provider offered a guide to creating safer meetings. They predicted at some point it would even become the norm for venues to become equipped with thermal scanning technology. 

If you’re the one (nervously) planning an upcoming event, you might also raise issues of a proper sanitation policy, social distancing markers or overall policy, protective equipment. Some issues to think about include: Will masks be required? What about gloves? Will there be sanitizer stations throughout the venue? Will microphones be swapped out between speakers? What about the workforce? Will food be served and if so, how?

Planning an event has always been fraught with anxiety, more so when living through a global pandemic. If the venue or planners cannot assure you that they’re taking every possible precaution, you can feel free to decline the invitation. 

Take it virtually

Even if your meeting counterpart is an unrepentant Luddite, there’s nothing wrong with suggesting you meet online. “If meeting in person makes you uncomfortable for fear of being exposed or exposing someone else to the virus it is fine to request a virtual meeting instead,” explained Clise. And if your past or existing medical conditions make attending any meeting unwise, politely decline the invitation or suggest another option. “There are many people who fall in the vulnerable category where exposure to the virus could be deadly,” Clise continued. While many people feel the uncomfortable revealing medical history in a professional setting, it’s okay not to attend an in-person meeting even if everyone else on the team will be there. At the end of the (business) day, before you protect your job, you have to protect your health.

But don’t slack off

While working pantless seems to be something many people brag about; it doesn’t quite put you in a professional mindset. If you are attending a virtual meeting, make sure you look the part- even if it’s just from the waist up. Groom your hair as best you can, if makeup is your thing, apply it carefully, now isn’t the time for emo eyeliner or unicorn inspired glitter. 

And if you’re the one planning or hosting the virtual meeting or event, show even virtual attendees that you’ve put a lot of care and planning into pulling it all together. I was recently invited to an event for CVS, and despite a few glitches in the actual programming, all other details were created with obvious care and extensive planning. The invitation mirrored the online meeting space and listed were the hosts, the schedule, and the ability to submit questions. 

Stay home if you’re sniffling

Meanwhile, one last thing. Even if you’re suffering from allergies, do not attend the event. You’ll end up spending most of the time explaining to people that its allergies and not a cold and the rest of the time fending off dirty looks from people worrying they might catch what you seem to have. While it’s never been a good idea to attend events when you felt under the weather, at this point it’s unforgivable. As Clise puts it “It’s not only polite but could be life-saving to decline an in-person meeting if you are feeling sick in any way. No one will fault you for not wanting to meet in person if you are ill.”