The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) wrapped up in Las Vegas on January 7, 2022, one day early due to COVID concerns. The tradeshow, historically one of the largest in the US, this year attracted about 40,000 attendees, (30% international) down from 170,000 in 2020.
Amid the Omicron surge, major exhibitors like Microsoft, Intel, GM, Amazon and T-Mobile pulled out, citing employee health concerns. Nonetheless, Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association said “CES will and must go on.”
To make it happen, CES2022 took a plethora of precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. The array of health protocols included encouraging all attendees to take a COVID test before the show and requiring proof of full COVID-19 vaccination to pick up a CES 2022 badge. Free COVID-19 self-test kits were distributed to each attendee, with testing and health care also available on site. Masks were required throughout the venues and on the buses. Hand sanitizer stations were available throughout the widely spaced exhibit floor, with social distancing helped by the horde of no-shows.
How effective was all this? With no data released and a lack of transparency from show organizers and Nevada health authorities, it’s hard to say.
But there are some concerning data points. At least seventy employees of the 340 Korean companies attending the show, including Samsung, SK, and Hyundai Heavy Industries, tested positive. Samsung, one of the largest companies at CES, chartered two aircraft to bring 20 COVID-positive employees bac to South Korea.
“Many Korean businesspeople who attended CES … are now confirmed to be infected with COVID-19,” Son Young-rae, a South Korean health ministry official, reportedly said. “We are promptly contacting those who participated in the event and conducting epidemiological investigations, but we urge domestic businesspeople or those who are in Korea that attended the event to undergo PCR tests as soon as possible.”
Fortunately, most of the Korean delegates apparently had minor symptoms and were quarantined after arrival. We contacted Samsung to get more information but did not receive a response.
Tony Slonim, MD, DrPH, FACHE, President & CEO of Renown Health in Reno, NV,, was a CES medical partner. He said, “We are now more prepared than ever to keep people safe, which is the top priority for CES. I am impressed that the Consumer Technology Association, our hotels, the conference venues and the City of Las Vegas have worked diligently to put every contemporary safety practice in place to ensure a healthy and successful in-person meeting this year.”
However, Korea Times claimed, “Though the event only allowed those fully vaccinated and required face masks to be worn indoors, enforced measures were reportedly insufficient in preventing swarms of visitors and reporters from getting infected.”
We attempted to contact Dr. Slonim after the show. He declined an interview. A Renown Health public relations person said, “We spoke with Dr. Slonim and from what he saw at the meeting, CES did an excellent job at safety protocols, but he has no follow up data on infection/spread/hospitalization rate among attendees, exhibitors and show workers so he doesn’t feel he is the right person to comment.”
On January 8, 2022, the Southern Nevada Health District put out a COVID-19 Update announcing the highest number of COVID-19 cases reported in a single day in the Las Vegas area since the beginning of the pandemic. The release noted that of January 7, (coincidentally the day the CES show closed) there have been 392,971 cases of COVID-19 reported in Clark County, an increase of 6,110 cases over the previous day. In addition, the Health District reported fifteen deaths.
How many of these cases came from CES? We asked CTA for data on the number of attendees who tested positive. The CTA did not provide any numbers but offered this statement.
“We are aware of media reports that some individuals who participated in CES in January 2022 tested positive to COVID-19 upon their return. CES 2022 had very robust health protocols developed with the advice of health care professionals and government safety officials. The requirements for proof of vaccination and masking in all CES indoor venues, as well as providing self-testing kits for all attendees helped us create a safer environment for our exhibitors, members, and attendees.
“We offered free PCR testing to all international attendees who were required to show proof of a negative test before flying internationally to their destination. We do not have confirmation of the number of cases as it is extremely difficult to determine exactly when and where anyone contracted COVID-19. Results from testing done onsite by medical staff were reported to the local Southern Nevada Health Authorities.”
We contacted Nevada health authorities, both the Southern Nevada Health Department (SNHD) and the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, multiple times. The SNHD did not respond. The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services claimed “While DHHS is not able to determine which positive test results were related to CES, the State of Nevada appreciate the protocols put in place before the event.”
The lack of data is troubling, as the battered travel industry was watching to see if an in-person show attracting attendees and exhibitors from all over the world could be pulled off safely. Recovery of the trade show industry ($34.4 billion globally in 2019) after two years of pandemic devastation was important. CES could also be a gauge of whether U.S. and international business travelers were finally returning.
“By staging an influential live event that safely convenes thousands of global professionals across the technology, business and political spectrum, CES is nothing short of a model for how business trade events can and should take place in 2022,” said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow. “The health and safety protocols in place at the Las Vegas Convention Center and throughout the hotel and hospitality community has further enabled the safe return of this and other major events.”
CES is also critical to Las Vegas, filling thousands of Sunday-through-Thursday hotel rooms, restaurants, clubs, bars, and taxis. The CES show may be about ‘gadgets’ but the money it dumps into the Las Vegas economy—more than $300 million—is no joke.
The lack of CES infection data, while the Clark County (Las Vegas Strip) positivity rate reach 33.4% by January 11, is disappointing. Meanwhile, there have been persistent claims that the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show may have been one of the first COVID-19 super spreader events, before the term had even been invented. A Las Vegas television station tracked down a number of people who attended CES2020 and claimed COVID symptoms.
Getting a sense of whether precautions were effective would help travelers understand how manageable the risk is. Without real answers, exhibitors, trade show managers and business travelers may decide that even after two years of COVID, it is still too early to hit the road.