As competitions have begun to ramp up this season, I have had to face the difficult decision regarding my level of involvement with the VRC during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two weeks, I have been considering what it means to safely hold tournaments and whether or not it is possible in the Houston area as well as other regions with similar community spread of SARS-CoV-2. I am of course not a health expert, so I’ve turned largely to the organization which provides widely accepted guidance to the public on community mitigation of viral spread, the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC. In any normal year, I would be excited to be a referee for many events in South Texas. Given the risk involved, I have decided not to participate in in-person tournaments this season. I would like to share my thoughts and conclusions to aid anyone else facing the same decision, as well as guidance to those who do decide to attend/host in-person tournaments, based on CDC recommendations as of November 18, 2020.
To begin with, I would like to reiterate what the REC Foundation has published regarding in-person events. The Season Restart Guide calls attention to a new Participant Release Form which calls for all participants to agree that they understand the risk of COVID-19 and are not known to have the virus or any of its symptoms. This list notably does not require participants to abstain from attending if they know they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. Participants and event planners alike should read the list of general event modifications that lays a baseline for events to implement to accommodate safety. This list also allows an Event Partner to implement any other reasonable requirements, which are necessary in order to align with CDC guidelines.
The CDC has published considerations for events and gatherings which outline the risk of COVID-19 spread at various types of events. Traditional VRC tournaments would be classified as the “highest risk” as “large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area.” With very strict measures, VRC tournaments could be de-escalated to the “higher risk” classification, as “medium-sized in-person gatherings that are adapted to allow individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and with attendees coming from outside the local area”, or, with the modification of holding smaller, locally-restricted events outdoors, only as severe as “more risk” as compared to virtual-only events. All participants should wear masks and all times, and face shields are not an adequate substitute . Hands should be washed regularly and all precautions should be taken to reduce contact with shared surfaces. Even with these recommendations considered, CDC guidelines are not perfect. Some people have become infected while in full compliance, but they are still the best guidelines we have.
Most of these guidelines are simple enough to adhere to, given careful event planning and enforcement of policies such as mask wearing, hand washing, and surface disinfection. However, some take much more significant effort and modification than others, which have largely not been implemented at events that have been held already. The revised driver stations as of the August 17 game manual update allow for greater than 6’ distance between competing teams while at the field for a match, but do not allow for adequate distance between a referee and a team. The CDC’s definition of close contact specifies a distance of less than 6 feet for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. This is required given the field images included in the game manual. In order to mitigate risk of transmission between referees and drive teams, additional modifications to the field are required. One possible modification is to install physical shields on each side of a central head ref, and forgo having any other refs on the field to eliminate the need to buy/build more than two shields per field. Another complication of separating the alliance station that has been overlooked at some events is the length of the ethernet cables that teams must plug their controllers into. If the standard-length cables are used, it can be awkward or impossible to stand within the designated driver station. Event planners need to get longer cables for their fields to encourage adequate distancing.
VRC tournaments this year should not look like tournaments in previous years. Here are a couple more protocols that should be taken, many of which are being implemented at South Texas events:
No spectators- It is nearly impossible to enforce 6’ and smaller gatherings decrease risk.
Proper mask wearing needs to be enforced by DQ and removal from venue. Face shields are not an adequate substitute .
Members of a team should be expected to stay at their table unless they have been called to a match. Intermixing in the pits for strategy planning does not allow for 6’ distancing.
No unregulated practice fields. No one should be sharing field objects without cleaning first, and open practice fields always attract too many people to gather closely.
How to maximize safety if you do plan on competing in person:
Read the policies that are listed on the Robot Events listing for any tournaments you plan to attend, and reach out to the primary contact if you do not believe they are adequate. If you are unable to verify that the policies at an event will be safe, reach out to the regional support manager for your region. If unsafe practices are allowed at an event that you attend, inform the event partner at that tournament as well as your regional support manager. It is imperative that everyone does their part to hold others in the robotics community accountable for practicing safety at these high-risk events, as in many regions they can only continue as long as they do not allow for any viral spread. As one of the leading STEM programs for middle schools and high schools, it is reasonable to expect VRC events to implement the highest standards for safety as driven by data and science. All participants should understand the risk involved in going to large gatherings. In many areas, events the size of VRC tournaments that are being held are more likely than not to have at least one person who is COVID-19-positive.
You should get tested if you are going to interact with others after attending a tournament. Many regions are now offering free COVID-19 testing. For info on testing in Houston, TX, visit https://readyharris.org/get-tested
TLDR: As a head ref, I have decided not to support in-person events this year due to the risk presented by COVID-19. VRC tournaments are high risk according to CDC guidelines. Extreme measures need to be taken if you are attending/running an event. The head ref position requires close contact with competitors, so modifications to the field are highly recommended. Understand the risk, do your part to slow the spread, and get tested if you attend a tournament.