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