GalaxyCon Raleigh’s return to the Raleigh Convention Center this weekend, July 29-August 1, signals a potential “return to normal” after the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a year devoid of mass gatherings and events.

But as the Delta Variant looms, is this really a sign that people can get back to old-school cosplay and photo opportunities, or a case of “too soon?”

The show’s lineup has shifted several times in the week leading up to it: major draw Brendan Fraser dropped out (though he has agreed to do a Livestream Q&A), followed by Arrow star Stephen Amell; three comic artists dropped out on earlier in the week due to travel restrictions; several other guests also had to drop out, while it was announced some of the remaining guests, including William Shatner, have requested plexiglass for their booths.

That’s for the best; you don’t want to feel like you risked William Shatner’s life.

The show has announced, and constantly updated, new safety protocols, that include requiring staff to wear masks and strongly advising—though not requiring—the same of attendees. Jokes about wearing masks for cosplay costumes aside, it’s also indicative of how live events have to proceed with caution, even as tickets for places like DPAC and the Carolina Theatre slowly go back on sale.

Comic conventions were already tricky, health-wise, even before the pandemic. I have many fond memories from a lifetime of attending comic book conventions—meeting my favorite creators, finding back issues I’d been seeking for years, getting drawings from my favorite artists, many of which now adorn the walls of my condo, framed for posterity.

I also remember two words: “Con Crud.”

In the past, those words were an inside joke amongst convention-goers for the ways in which the pop-cultural destinations could become a petri dish for whatever bacteria was in vogue at that moment. I wasn’t immune; various con trips left me with summer colds, the flu, and a particularly bad case of norovirus at Heroes Con in Charlotte, 2012. Yes, I remember the year.

These days, COVID-19 has made “the crud” something a bit more palatable and potentially fatal. It’s extended to the point that almost all comic conventions have been canceled in the past year and change; the big one, Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC for die-hards), which attracted more than 132,500 attendees and media in 2019, has switched to virtual panels for “Comic-Con at Home,” just as GalaxyCon did last year.

A number of celebrities appearing as guests for the GalaxyCon chain are still just doing virtual appearances, where fans can pay to be part of online panels with them, get autographs mailed out, or do quick virtual “one-on-one” sessions.

GalaxyCon’s last live show in 2019 got more than 38,500 attendees, a little over 1/3 of the mass of the more-established SDCC, but a significant number for the Triangle. This year, reports say the convention is prepared for a smaller crowd of about 22,000 attendees over the four days. Smaller shows, such as the aforementioned Heroes Con and the Bull City/Oak City shows for NC Comicon, are still keeping the lights off this year, though Heroes Con has a “Giant-Size Charlotte Mini-Con” planned for November.

Personally, I won’t be attending GalaxyCon (though a friend having a birthday out-of-town helped make the decision for me). But how the Con goes—and whether there are cases of COVID and its ilk surging afterward—might be an indicator of the risks involved in “reopening the world.” Can we truly get back to a place where thousands of people and their germs can all be crammed into one place again?

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