Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
May 17, 2022 7:00 AM EDT

When the time it takes to decide whether to go on the business trip is longer than the trip itself…

That was me last week, weighing rising Covid cases and multiple exposures with the real need to network, build brand awareness, and raise funding for a startup. I consulted friends, family, doctors, and authorities in data, public health, even aviation and the economy. The decision-making process was arduous and tortuous, and I still don’t know if I did the right thing. But I’m sharing the journey here because I emerged with a framework that hopefully will make this choice easier—or at least less time-consuming—in the future.

Since getting vaccinated, I have been traveling regularly for work, to see family, and to go on vacation. During recent Covid surges, namely Delta last spring and Omicron this past winter, the decision-making was out of my hands, as events I was scheduled to attend were canceled or rescheduled. I just hunkered down and rode out the waves.

This time is different. My home state of New York was put on “high alert” last week. The little boy down the street tested positive just hours after playing at my house. Abruptly, my inbox flooded with emails from my children’s schools warning of a classmate getting Covid.

We’ve navigated surges before. But this one comes against a backdrop of mask mandates being lifted, restaurants no longer checking for proof of vaccination, and, most starkly, a culture of resuming life and business as usual—even as, for many of us, it feels anything but.

I’m hardly alone in my consternation over the invisible surge. Over on Forbes, contributor Talia Milgrom-Elcott approached everyone from mathematicians to game theorists, futurists to psychologists, to study why we are so paralyzed right now by uncertainty and decision-making. She concluded: “In fact, over time, the cost of hand-wringing over low-stakes decisions is greater than any benefit you’ll gain from changing your mind.”

Some questions we might ask to make the hand-wringing easier:

What are the numbers for where you are and where you are going?

Covid rates and responses vary widely across the U.S. and the entire world. One of the challenges throughout the pandemic has been navigating the uneven, inequitable nature of vaccine distribution, Covid tests, and ease of crossing borders. In many cases overseas, boosters are not widespread or available. (But we need not be haughty: Less than half of Americans with a vaccine have received their booster.)

Data collection also varies, but I did appreciate having a concrete number I could use to measure Covid cases and vaccination rates in both my origin and destination cities. There are multiple global Covid trackers; I confess the easiest for me has been to plug in zip codes or city names into search engines.

What are your priorities?

How many of us spent the early months of the pandemic in lockdown saying we would never return to the harried days again? How quickly we forget.

The questions I asked myself last week: Why are you going, and what are you hoping to achieve? Are there any other ways to connect with the event, attendees, etc?

These questions feel especially fraught as the economy appears to be heading for a downturn. And as an entrepreneur, trying to make sure I am building both capacity for my company’s growth and a runway for what’s to come, assessing the need for in-person connection can be especially challenging. So much of a startup’s success (and funding) can be chalked up to a random conversation seated next to someone at an industry lunch.

Such serendipity makes the case for in-person events. The hardest part of trying to articulate what I would miss by not attending a conference was not knowing what I would miss.

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What’s happening before and after the Events That Matter?

One doctor I spoke to had an incredibly helpful tip: He told me to make a calendar of upcoming events that matter to me. As the parent of a teenager about to graduate high school and another child about to leave elementary school, my list quickly filled with end-of-year retreats, recitals, prom, dinners, and parties.

The doctor told me to winnow the list down to the really critical ones, and plan to take the previous 10 days somewhat easier in terms of entering large, enclosed crowds of people. Because the travel in question was to Canada, technically abroad, he also told me I had to take the US testing requirement to get back into its borders seriously, as well as the possibility of having to quarantine outside the country.

Can you risk quarantine? Can you afford to cancel?

Most people I spoke to had stories of friends and family stuck in quarantine in another country after a business trip. These tales ranged from horrific (no doctors, didn’t speak the local language, needed hospitalization) to copacetic (the vacation just got extended, the hotel room had a pretty view, room service wasn’t bad).

After making my calendar, I also listed what events and meetings I might miss if I had to quarantine before returning. I examined my flights and hotel details to see if I would be reimbursed if I canceled (I would be, although this process also has changed how I am booking future travel). There’s nothing more sobering than looking at a 36-hour conference and seeing all of the events afterward you might have to skip, including your own daughter’s graduation party.

What are the Covid policies around the event?

One doctor and public-health expert asked me if I had asked the event or venue about HVAC systems. “The key word is MERV13 filters,” she wrote to me.

That sent me on a Google search to determine that the US Environmental Protection Agency does indeed advise: “Upgrading to a MERV-13 rated filter, or the highest-rated filter that your HVAC system fan and filter slot can accommodate, could improve the system’s efficacy in removing viruses from circulated air.”

In the case of the conference I was slated to attend, organizers proactively told us they were satisfied with policies around circulation and that some meetings might be moved outdoors. However, they also said they could not guarantee attendees wear masks, as those policies were set by local governments.

What I decided—and the privilege that comes with it.

In the end, I opted to skip the event and cancel the trip. I decided my children’s end-of-year activities outweighed the potential networking and brand-building opportunities, all the time aware that many other professionals have not had the privilege to make the same decisions about in-person work the last few years.

I thought making the call would bring a feeling of relief. Indeed, it brought some, but it was short-lived. On Saturday, while out running errands (we bought mulch) with my husband thanks to a suddenly “free” day of not having to travel, we received a phone call: It was my daughter’s Girl Scout troop leader. Some children on her camping trip had just tested positive, and she just wanted us to know about the potential risk.

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