At earliest, the top infectious disease official in the United States says a coronavirus vaccine may be deployable at scale by the very tail end of 2020. If everything goes right, and the vaccine works. And not for everybody, at least not until early 2021. Again, this is at the earliest if everything goes exactly right. In unrelated news, CES thinks it can hold a giant convention next January.
CES brings well over a hundred thousand people down on the city of Las Vegas via airplanes from every corner of the globe. CES is known for its extreme human density, not just in the convention center, but in hotels, restaurants, public transit (yes, people use the monorail at CES), event venues, taxis, buses, clubs, and bars. CES is downright notorious among attendees as an infectious disease vector: the CES flu is literally a thing.
You can see why, taken together, all of this may concern some people about the idea of a CES 2021. The list of challenges is basically unending.
Saying you'll sanitize surfaces but won't require masks (they'll just be a "best practice") in a venue as crowded as the LVCC (Las Vegas Convention Center) is legitimately, insanely irresponsible. We already know temperature checkpoints are a pretty garbage way to limit viral spread (the NIH says "screening would detect no more than half of infected travellers in a growing epidemic [and] ... the majority of cases missed by screening are fundamentally undetectable"). Just saying you'll do social distancing does not suddenly, magically make it possible when dealing with tens of thousands of people. Adding more EMTs and nurses does not make the virus less transmittable. But this is basically what the CTA (the organization behind CES) says its plans are, and that this will all do the trick. Even assuming CTA can take responsible steps to limit transmission and people feel sufficiently convinced those steps are effective (or simply don't care about COVID-19), we have so much more to consider.
What do we do with people coming from outside the United States? Do they have to present proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test or antibody test? Which tests will be considered acceptable? Do they need to be FDA approved? Will those who can't provide test results be tested for coronavirus on arrival? What if someone tests positive? Will their seatmates also be banned from the show? People within 3 rows? The whole plane? Who will organize the testing? If people don't or can't get tested, will they need to self-quarantine for 2 weeks? Will this only apply for people from countries starting with the letters "C-H-I-N"? Will people from said countries be allowed at all? We have answers to literally none of this. A legitimately plausible scenario given how absolutely horrible our country is at organizing things like this is that someone arriving from China will have to show up two weeks early for CES to quarantine, spend five days at CES, then quarantine for another two weeks upon their return back to China. Including travel, they could be looking at spending 5 weeks of total turnaround, most of it in quarantine, just to go to a trade show. That would be insane!
What about product demos, an absolute core feature of CES not just for journalists, but for basically every attendee? If you're operating in a booth environment, you'll need to sanitize any product anyone touches, presumably for every single demo. The amount of sanitizing supplies this would require at an event of CES's scale borders on unimaginable. There are also demos which will simply make no sense in this kind of situation—is anyone going to suggest it's a good idea to demo a VR headset 12 other people just wore today, even after it's been cleaned? Is it even reasonably possible to sanitize a car between booth or drive demos in a way that doesn't result in massive wait times? Can you afford to staff every single public demo station at a booth with a dedicated person to disinfect a product every time someone touches it? These are legitimate questions, and I feel the answer to all of them is "that sounds like way too much of a pain in the ass." And if that's the case, how many companies will drop out simply because this isn't financially, practically, or optically feasible for them? My guess is "a lot."
And what happens outside the confines of the official convention center? Companies will just have to say they're being responsible, of course, and the CTA will have to trust them. I'm sure there's no chance that CES's legendary party scene will go underground to a world of private suites, rented houses, and off-strip businesses where social distancing and masking will be utterly ignored by folks who consider all of this to be no big deal and just a bunch of overblown nonsense (... that has killed over 100,000 people in this country alone).
CES may be seven months away, but in the past three months, the world has learned an incredible amount about how to limit the spread of coronavirus in important ways. It's also learned that the virus can easily start to spread again even in areas where it is deemed "under control." As things stand now, at an event like CES, it is basically impossible to assert the level of control necessary to stop the spread of the virus without making the show effectively useless for most who would attend it. CES 2021 is a bad idea, and it's a bad idea for reasons that are as plentiful as they are obvious.