The holidays are looking a bit different this year. In 2020, many folks were isolated and unable to celebrate the end of the year together at holiday parties. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has brought changes to all aspects of life, people are returning to some form of normalcy and are ready to come together again.

This season, companies throughout the state are planning holiday parties, but many say they will implement additional sanitization practices and decrease the size of gatherings. That’s because Arizona is still coming off a third surge in COVID-19 cases, and only about half of the population has been fully vaccinated. As of today, 59.7% of the state’s population was fully vaccinated, according to Our World In Data.

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“While we are happy to see a stabilization or a plateauing of our hospitalizations across most of our markets, we are still very busy,” says Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health. “Our numbers as of Sept. 8 show that we are caring for 522 ICU patients. In contrast, our peak ICU occupancy during the 2020 summer surge was 484.”

According to local event space owners, the demand for holiday parties is on the rise. Kate Christensen, owner and founder of Katherine Christensen & Associates, says, “I believe that people who want to go out will, and those who have any reluctance simply will not.”

Christensen’s firm began transitioning back to in-person work in June 2021. The venue that they work with, SoHo63 in Chandler, never ceased operations, but events held during the pandemic were much smaller than normal and included sanitary practices, including masks, 30-minute wipe downs of areas people touch, moving all contracts to digital to avoid touching of papers and more. This holiday season, the company already has a few corporate events scheduled.

“Plans for holiday parties are fewer than in 2019, but they are coming in. Yes, there is still a decrease in size and a switch to more individual activities and, of course, masks and sanitizer remain available,” Christensen says.

Christensen and her staff work with large and small corporations and associations, as well as community, philanthropic and private clients. The team helps each customer determine the best COVID precautions for each gathering.

The CDC recommends that events be held outdoors or virtually for people who are not fully vaccinated. The Arizona Department of Health Services provides the same recommendations.

“We have detailed and specific discussions with our event hosts about their desires as they pertain to COVID-19. Some require masks; others require vaccines. Some need to see proof of vaccination, while others will ask for test documentation within three days of the event. Some even take temperatures daily for multiple day events,” Christensen says.

JP Mullan, COO of Octane Entertainment, explained that his company’s centers, Octane Raceway and Mavrix, have been scheduling holiday parties. Pre-pandemic, corporate gatherings and team building events made up 38% of Octane Raceway’s sales, with holiday functions hosting 100 to 150 attendees. Mullan says events this year will be smaller because larger corporate companies have yet to return to the office.

Due to concerns about surges, Octane Entertainment has adjusted its practices. “We are being more lenient regarding our terms. If a client wants to cancel within 30 days, we’re doing a fully refundable cancellation. We are also offering some incentives to book early just to reserve that space,” Mullan says.

One of the draws of Mavrix, which features bowling, arcade games, laser tag and more, is that the space offers private rooms that can be adjusted to create one large room. This allows companies to have some privacy while limiting contact with non-employees.

“You work with these people, and you have your own expectations of what they do at work, as far as being around them regularly,” Mullan says. “To not have anybody else in your space is a huge plus, and we can offer that here.”

Drew Barnes, marketing and sales manager for Medieval Times, notes that there is a silver lining from having gone through 2020. “Now we’re much better equipped to handle cancellations or number modifications. We are cautiously optimistic with every group that we put on the books.”

In 2019, Medieval Times hosted 400 groups within its corporate segment, with an average group size of between 40 and 50 people. Barnes says the dinner theater venue began receiving holiday party inquiries in July, although the frequency slowed down with the emergency of the Delta variant.

Medieval Times, Octane Raceway and Mavrix are all located in the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, which has a mask mandate in place at the time this story was published. Additional vaccination or testing requirements are determined by the individual companies.