Otakon 2021, subtitled “The Con at the End of the Rainbow,” occurred under circumstances unseen since the first American anime convention welcomed fans in the early 1980s. America, Washington DC included, is still in the midst of a pandemic despite federal and state campaigns urging citizens to get vaccinated. The introduction of the new Delta variant has seen a sharp spike in hospitalizations of the unvaccinated, as well as increased concerns for at-risk populations who cannot get the vaccine at all; such as those who are immunocompromised or children under the age of 12. Nationally, the U.S.’s worst day was January 8 with over 300,000 newly recorded cases. New infection cases began dropping steadily and yet, for the first time since February, the U.S. is averaging more than 100,000 new cases a day.
Contextually, for the DC area specifically, a little over half of residents are fully vaccinated. The nation’s capital has experienced a 138% increase in COVID-19 cases and a 33% increase in hospitalizations in the last two weeks. Monday saw the area’s largest spike in new cases in months with a total of 486 over the weekend period (Monday’s numbers include those reported on Saturday and Sunday). The district is considered a very high risk for anyone who is unvaccinated. These numbers aren’t Florida, but they aren’t reassuring either.
Otakorp was open about the financial challenges the con was facing in the midst of the pandemic, having had to cancel the 2020 event. Staff stated that they had “looked at every possibility, including alternate dates and a reduced-size event, but the reality is that it will not be possible to hold a successful, fun, and most importantly, safe event in 2020.” Staff turned to crowdfunding to keep the event afloat, raising over US$34,000 to pad out the year. This year’s event, planned just 70 days ahead of the August 6 weekend, feels less like result of a comprehensive safety evaluation than one dictated by contractual obligations, finances, and district guidelines.
Attendees that registered for the cancelled 2020 event had their tickets roll over for last week’s convention, with the option of cancelling if the logistics were not going to work out. Regardless of how many 2020 attendees were unable to make it out this year, Otakon welcomed 25,543 individual attendees over the course of the event. Given the relatively short notice, this is on par with its 2019 event—the con experienced an attendance downturn of only 10.2%. This stat may be surprising to anyone who was observing the event via social media, but for those of us on the floor, it’s far from shocking. Otakon very much felt like a convention occurring in a time before COVID. Well, minus the masks.
Unlike the upcoming Anime NYC event which will require proof of vaccination to attend (mirroring New York State’s push for vaccination requirements), Otakon was open to the public so long as attendees complied with required mask use. Some of the con’s popular entertainment was cancelled due to safety concerns, such as the maid café and dance, due to both involving tightly packed rooms. However, with the exception of one panel I sat in on, I found folks turning out to packed seating in the panel rooms. It was, of course, impossible to maintain anything resembling six feet of distance in the hallways and Dealer’s Room, and there was no attempt to provide this in the panel rooms either. Chairs were seated in standard rows with no space in between. From my own observations at the event, attendees did abide by the mask guidelines, but I was disappointed to see that in an instance where they did not, nothing was done, specifically in a crowded panel room.
In one darkly ironic example, I observed a full panel room where approximately five individuals weren’t masked (they were not eating or drinking), including two men seated next to me. As it became apparent that they were just not going to put their masks back on, I shifted from my seat to the back of the room. It took about a minute before the Otakon staff member directed me to somewhere to sit, lest I break fire code which, as I was reminded, was federal law. Listen, no one wants to be the “mask police” and there is certainly an unobtrusive way to state the masking guidelines at the start of a panel before singling folks out or asking them to leave if they refuse to comply. It did not appear that any such considerations were planned into operating the event, and well, if you decide to run a con during COVID, then you’re taking on the responsibility of ensuring attendees comply with the necessary mandates. The same can be said about eating in designated areas. People were eating whenever and wherever because it is logistically impossible to enforce 25,000 people from eating wherever they decide to pop a squat.
Although the con was organized in a comparatively short time frame and held under extraordinary circumstances, what was most surprising was how otherwise normal the whole event felt. Sure, there was a noticeable increase in anxiety, but the event managed to turn out a wide array of panel programming and the dealer’s room was busy and packed with most of the usual shopfronts. Actual industry presence was somewhat diminished; there were no large Funimation, Viz, or Crunchyroll booths. Instead, the big fish in the pond this year was certainly Discotek Media. The boutique anime licensor has firmly established itself as the industry panel to attend and fans are guaranteed a healthy helping of humor alongside impossible-to-believe licenses. This year was no exception as the panel opened with a sizzle reel of dub one-liners from the Ninja Robots anime (they’ve found all of the dub so far with the exception of two minutes from a single episode) and closed with the promise of a Blu-ray release of the fan-favorite Gunbuster OAV (with new dub!). The company also brought in the long-awaited Project A-Ko restoration for screening to a nearly full house.
Surely, and myself included, there was a level of anticipation and excitement to simply be at a convention after 2020. Many of us have been living a more isolated existence since the pandemic began and small things like watching an anime movie together, congregating at the nearby watering hole, and cheering one another through our respective presentations were a balm in a world where we otherwise can feel weird. While walking the ground floor of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Saturday night, I overheard one attendee tell another, “We’ve been through so much, we deserve this.” I couldn’t help but feel conflicted. I was certainly struck by all the small kindnesses I experienced from my friends and colleagues over the weekend, the most of all being the interwoven sense of community and consideration that has felt all too tenuous in the last year.
We all deserve that sense of belonging, but it’s difficult to shake the residual guilt of seeking it out in light of Monday’s COVID numbers.
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