Comic Con Offers a Glimpse of New York’s Future
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If you are wondering what “back to normal” looks like, I am here to tell you: It is filled with people dressed like comic-book characters.
New York Comic Con 2021 started last week, running through this weekend at the Javits Center on Manhattan’s West Side. The crowds were kept smaller than in years past, due to the pandemic, but the main difference was a set of tents in a gravel-filled vacant lot adjacent to the Hudson Yards subway exit. Inside the tents, anyone who wanted to attend Comic Con had to prove they were vaccinated.
So it was that a subculture which celebrates alternate futures, fantastical worlds and superheroic beings would become the largest example yet of how to stage large events in a post-pandemic blue state. The socially awkward were (somewhat) socially distanced. The cosplayers were (of course) masked, but also masked.
Per city guidelines, all Comic Con attendees over the age of 12 had to be vaccinated. Children under 12 had to show proof of recent testing. And everyone had to be masked — medical-grade, not Batman-style.
The vaccine tents were the first place many attendees encountered the new regime. Once vaccination (including ID) was verified, attendees were given a green wristband with a one-way fastener — designed to make removal nigh impossible. Attending all four days? Be prepared for a grubby wristband.
The conflicting messages that have trickled down to the public throughout the pandemic were also manifest in the tents. A volunteer reminded a fan with his mask dangling under his chin to “nudge it up, please.” But the mask mandate is for inside! (Ironically, inside the Javits Center, fans had to be masked but panelists sat alongside each other maskless). At the entrances to the center, wristbands were checked and badges scanned. Inside, there were spot checks.
It’s important to get this right, because nerd culture is big business. Geek pop culture — think the Marvel movies alone — is a multibillion-dollar industry. New York Comic Con (now the largest such event in the country, having eclipsed San Diego’s) has in the past generated more than $100 million in economic activity.
But a pandemic world means lower expectations. In 2019, Comic Con attracted some 275,000 people. The total number this year was capped at about 150,000 (including celebrity guests, exhibitors and staff). Organizers wanted to prove that they can make events like this work, so following the city’s Covid guidelines was crucial; one exhibitor was expelled Friday over failure to follow the mask mandate.
Not all Comic Con fans were totally on board. Independent book publisher David Bernstein, a regular New York Comic Con attendee, initially bought three tickets for the weekend, but used only one. He saw a dystopian future in the event’s arrangement with CLEAR, the same company that enables frequent fliers to skip the lines at the airport. Comic Con attendees were encouraged to download the CLEAR app.
“I find passports morally repugnant and can’t support anything that makes it easier to implement,” he texted me. “We all know where this can go. Once we cede the notion that the government can curtail an individual’s participation in society based on a particular action or inaction, there’s no end to what behavior can be mandated (healthy diet? Non-smoking? Recycling?). And with the power of digital passports, governments have the ability to monitor and enforce compliance like never before. It’s all very frightening and insidious.”
It hardly mattered that all attendees had to show was some proof of vaccination, even a paper version. For Bernstein, it was the principle.
Lance Fensterman, president of ReedPop, which organizes NYCC and 45 other entertainment events, is sensitive to this concern. But he noted that response from customers was positive. There were 600 refund requests after the city announced its mandate, he said (it was two months after tickets went on sale). There was also a surge of new ticket sales to “customers reassured that the convention experience would be safe,” he said. A gaming expo earlier this summer in Seattle had a similar experience, he said.
But it’s not just cranky middle-aged guys objecting on principle. Some of the opposition is more about pandemic fatigue. I talked to a 20-year-old nursing student who was vaccinated — her school required it — but nevertheless wondered about the policy, despite having weathered the virus herself last year. “I’m ready for all this to be over,” she told me.
Even with delta variant receding, however, there’s no indication that Covid will be eradicated anytime soon. For blue-state America, New York Comic Con’s experience may well be the future for, well, the foreseeable future.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.
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