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AWP Conference criticized over loose mask policy

Writers and literary professionals from all over the nation have voiced their support for a petition that vies to achieve a policy change for this year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference. The event takes place from Mar. 8 to Mar. 11 at the Seattle Convention Center’s Summit building. The conference is not only a place for writers and academic professionals to network, but is also a time for the writing community to come together and share stories of difference, relatability, and identity.

As excitement has been building for the thousands expected to attend the conference, there also comes fear from those who have made issue with the mask policy currently in place

Within the past weeks, there have been circulating posts along with the link to the petition “Request AWP to require masks” calling upon the heads of the conference to reevaluate the policy. The petition has now reached over 1,185 signatures with a goal to reach at least 1,500 in hopes of gaining local media coverage. The online petition for masks at the conference.

A point being made on the petition, created by author Alyssa Harad, reminds those in charge of AWP that “COVID disproportionately impacts those already the most vulnerable,” referring to attendees who are “immunocompromised or otherwise high-risk.” Although there are other options viable for safety measures, the petition brings up that “masks for everyone in attendance is the best and most accessible way to protect all attendees, staff and our most vulnerable community members.”

In closing, the petition calls out AWP’s principles seeing a reconsideration of masking policies “as part of [their] stated commitments to accessibility, racial equity and social justice.”

Along with signatures, there are also comments that show support from both local and out-of-town writers. Minnesotan non-binary writer Danez Smith commented by saying, “While I’m happy AWP is in person and I’m excited to go, we owe it to our communities at home and each other to be as safe and responsible as possible.”

American-Canadian writer and activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha commented, “I have low hoops [sic] for AWP doing the right thing due to their well documented history of ablism [sic] against disabled and Deaf community members.”

After reaching out to Seattle-based poet and artist Sierra Nelson, I asked them about their thoughts on immunocompromised attendees and how the loose mask policy might disqualify them from attending. “I definitely think immunocompromised writers are carefully weighing what to attend, and whether to attend at all, factoring in available information about mask wearing and other access needs.” 

While acknowledging that the responsibility shouldn’t fall only on the shoulders of immunocompromised and other vulnerable parties, they also stated, “Instead, we can proactively group acknowledge there will be people among us who will benefit from this added layer of protection, and all do it.” 

Some of the panels at AWP will personally be requiring masks for anyone who attends. For Seattle-based writer Matilda Bernstein Sycamore, she posted a graphic on her Instagram page of her panel. At the bottom left of the image, it is written that masks are required for this event. 

Controversy has also surrounded past AWP events when it comes to accessibility for disabled community members. A collective of anonymous writers, Disabled & Deaf Uprising, posted a field report on the 2018 AWP conference that took place in the city of Tampa, Florida on Vida with personal experiences of disabled writers who attended that year’s conference. 

One attendee wrote about how there were no shuttles going to and from hotels, making it more challenging for writers who rely on free transportation to access the conference and avoid more out-of-pocket expenses. 

Another attendee went on to write about the disorganized layout of the conference. Floors were found to be covered by cords and wires, making anyone who required mobile chairs for accessibility to face obstacles when accessing any part of the event. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 226,618 COVID cases happening weekly with 2,290 deaths from the virus happening in the same time period. 

Attendees have been receiving check-in emails from AWP for more information on the conference while also highlighting their awareness of the mask policy. While acknowledging immunocompromised conference-goers, AWP stresses that masking can be difficult for those who find it hard to breathe, as well as making it difficult for deaf or hard of hearing attendees who rely on facial or social cues. AWP states in an email: “We cannot impose a one-size-fits-all protocol.” Underneath the FAQs section for the conference, AWP lists they “encourage attendees to protect themselves as they see fit,” while also having a COVID-19 liability waiver that insists “attendees assume all risks of infections”.

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