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The Week Omicron Came to Town

A surge in the new variant surprised a media community longing for a return to holiday parties, resulting in breakthrough infections at BuzzFeed, Insider, New York Magazine, and The Paris Review

This was supposed to be a party report. It was supposed to be fun: New York media parties are back! Off the Record would finish the year out and about, talking to people in person and having a good time. Or that was our thinking when we set the week’s publishing schedule earlier this week. Even as late as Thursday morning, we harbored fading hopes that our plan would hold. But like so many parties, the one we were planning to cover, hosted by The Atlantic CEO Nicholas Thompson and New Yorker writer Charles Duhigg, was canceled. The reality of a new strain spreading faster than previous ones started to set in throughout the day as the media class edged closer to panic. Large gatherings seemed imprudent, and holiday travel plans were jettisoned. So here we are. There’ll be no cocktail chatter, only a barrage of disappointments, including positive cases at Recode, New York Magazine, BuzzFeed, Insider, and The Paris Review.

Last week was different. There were the occasional unexpected breakthrough cases, but things seemed like they were moving towards normal. Rituals like gathering with colleagues near a company-funded open bar seemed attainable. On Wednesday, December 8, New York Magazine hosted a party at the Hidden Lane Bar near Union Square. It would be another week before New York writer Shawn McCreesh would end a report detailing the spread of “the media variant” with the disclosure, “I had Covid, too.”

That Friday, it still seemed safe to go to bars with work friends. A group from The New Republic staff met up in Brooklyn. Back in Chelsea, BuzzFeed and HuffPost staff gathered at the Starrett-Lehigh Building (a sticker on an Instagram post from the event called it the “BuzzFeed NY & DC Holiday Party”). Others at the company were uncomfortable with the idea of going to a party. “I work remotely from New Hampshire,” HuffPost overnight editor Jade Walker told Off the Record. “It wouldn’t even occur to me to travel to NYC during a global pandemic to attend a party. Hell, I haven’t even been inside a grocery store in nearly two years.” BuzzFeed declined a request for comment.

Disquiet began to spread at the start of this week. On Tuesday, December 14, Recode’s Peter Kafka posted some “personal news.” “I got Covid! And passed it along to at least one of my kids,” he wrote. “We’re all fine — symptoms felt like a mild flu at worst. Main problems were cancelling a lot of plans and being stuck with a 10-day quarantine.” The following day, rumors that there had been multiple infections at the BuzzFeed party began to break out. A tweet by Paris Martineau, a reporter at The Information, started trending in media circles labeling the BuzzFeed holiday/SPAC party the “chaotic neutral” version of getting a breakthrough Covid case. Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Versha Sharma retweeted the chart with the comment, “lol I know of at least one chaotic neutral case.” Later that day, Gawker posted a blind item asking, “Which media company’s very large holiday party resulted in a rash of COVID diagnoses?”

The rumors weren’t enough to dissuade other publications from holding their holiday parties. The Paris Review hosted theirs on Wednesday, December 15. “It was a much smaller gathering than pre-pandemic parties,” Emily Stokes, the magazine’s editor, wrote to Off the Record, “and, due to the new variant, we required that everyone have been vaccinated and that they take a third-party-administered PCR test (in the 48 hours before the party) or a third-party-administered antigen test (in the 24 hours before the party). We had a bouncer check people’s IDs, vaccination cards, and their negative results.” But, she added, “unfortunately, someone who was there has since tested positive for COVID-19.” In a note she sent on Thursday evening informing attendees of the case, Stokes explained that the person, who is fully vaccinated, had tested negative on the antigen test ahead of the party, but “felt unwell this morning and has since tested positive on a home-test.” She concluded, “I am really sorry to have to share this news after such a lovely evening.”

On Wednesday, Insider, too, decided to go ahead with their festivities, hosting a happy hour and Elf viewing party at their offices at One Liberty Plaza. “There was definitely some chatter amongst employees that this might not be a good idea, but we did it anyway,” one employee told Off the Record. “I think they had already gotten all the booze and food.” Roughly 60 people ended up attending, according to the employee. Insider did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

At 8:53 a.m. the next morning, employees received an email informing them “that several employees who were in the office last week, the week of December 6, have tested positive for COVID-19.” The memo went on to say that, as far as the company knew, there were only possible exposures at the office and not at any outside events. “Considering the recent spate of workers who got Covid, it was a misstep to not go without requiring people who wish to attend in-person to rapid test on the Tuesday before the party was held,” another employee told Off the Record. “But the truth is I think some people can’t take it anymore and there haven’t yet been any government regulations on how to secure ourselves against the recent spate of infections, so I can’t really consider anyone negligent for having attended.”

On Thursday, anxiety levels peaked. Insider’s Steven Perlberg reported that he had confirmed with three BuzzFeed employees, all fully vaccinated and boosted, who had tested positive after attending the holiday party and that his sources estimated “that there were about 10 cases” in total so far. He called the situation an “outbreak.” He reported a memo had gone out to employees saying, “With Covid positive cases rising across the US, we now have a number of known full-time and freelance employees who have tested positive in recent days.” BuzzFeed tech reporter Katie Notopoulos shared Perlberg’s story, writing, “You can’t deny that BuzzFeed has truly unlocked the secret to making things go viral.”

Duhigg and Thompson have been hosting Drinks for Journalists, the event Off the Record planned to cover, for about a decade. For a while, they were doing them about once a quarter. Then the pandemic hit. Duhigg moved to Santa Cruz, California, and Thompson went upstate. Their tradition lay dormant. With the pandemic seeming to be calming, Duhigg started planning a trip to New York and emailed Thompson asking if he’d like to revive the Drinks. Just before Thanksgiving on November 22 and 23, he and Thompson sent their invites out to a list of roughly 2,000 people, asking them to join them at a bar in Brooklyn, Greenwood Park, on December 16. “I think I became a journalist, in part, because I wanted to hang out with other journalists,” Duhigg told Off the Record. “The thing we were most excited about is, it didn’t feel like this was over, but maybe we were at a place where we could see the end of it, where we could see getting back together again, and it just would feel so normal.”

Duhigg spent almost a month looking forward to the event. “This felt like a very normal thing to get together with friends, some of whom we haven’t seen in two years, to just have a normal evening of having beers and catching up,” he said, “being outside and being vaccinated, but able to remember and go back a little bit to what it was like in the before days.” Late Wednesday afternoon, they were still moving forward with the plan. Duhigg emailed his invite list, “Just a reminder that the festivities tomorrow evening are very much on.”

Unlike the eager responses that greeted the initial invitation, people on the list responded that they had family members or members of their staff who had tested positive recently and that the virus seemed to be spreading faster. They asked, was this still a good idea? “That’s when I reached out to my epidemiologist friend,” Duhigg said. “I had reached out to this friend probably a little bit under a week ago to say, ‘Is this still wise? Is this okay? Because we’re hearing about Omicron.’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, I think it’s fine, as long as you’re outside, as long as it’s a well ventilated outside area.’” Her reply was very different this time. “She emailed back and said, ‘Actually, all the numbers are moving much faster than we thought they were.’ She didn’t say, ‘People will get sick.’ But she said, ‘This seems like a needless risk right now.’”

So on Thursday morning, Duhigg and Thompson sent out emails saying that they were canceling the drinks. “We are really disappointed to miss seeing all of you — we’ll try again in the spring, when hopefully the virus has been brought to heel,” Duhigg wrote. “In the meantime, stay warm, stay healthy, and to hell with pandemics.” Along with the disappointment, Duhigg said he felt some relief. “I started getting worried,” he said. “Both Nick and I were like, ‘Are we overreacting?’ And then, as soon as [the epidemiologist] sent that note, I was like, ‘Nope, we’re not overreacting.’ And actually, what’s interesting is, when I sent the note saying that it’s canceled, I probably got 40 or 50 emails from people saying, ‘This seems like the right call. I was going to come, but I was wondering if it’s wise to come.’ I think everyone was going through the same mental calculus last night.” He said, “We didn’t want to put our finger on a scale at all in a way that we might look back on and regret.” Still, he’s looking forward to organizing the next Drinks with Journalists. “I miss them,” he said. “Hopefully, those days will be here again soon.”

Looking back just 36 hours, Duhigg mourned lost optimism. “I think everyone was just looking forward to feeling like maybe this is done,” he said, “but it’s clearly not.”