As pandemic restrictions continue to make it difficult to lobby Congress face to face, the National Association of Realtors has decided to hold its midyear conference virtually for the second year in a row.

The 1.4 million-member trade group held its annual Realtors Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo exclusively online for the first time last year and more than 28,000 attendees participated in the event — tripling the usual 9,000 or so attendees when the event is held in person in Washington D.C.

Last Tuesday, NAR told Inman it planned to hold its scheduled in-person meetings, including the midyear conference, beyond March and would be monitoring Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, host city restrictions, the current trajectory of infection, concerns with air travel, rate of vaccination, and capacity and staffing available at hotels. Three days later, on Friday, NAR announced that the midyear conference would be held virtually.

Originally slated for May 10-15, the Realtors Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo will now be spread out over two weeks, from May 3-14. NAR will open registration for the event on Feb. 24. In a press release, the trade group said that “persistent spikes in COVID-19 cases led the association to conclude that it was not yet safe to conduct an event of this magnitude from one central location.”

NAR President Charlie Oppler

“One of NAR’s core values is to put members first, and with that the health and safety of America’s 1.4 million Realtors remains our top priority,” NAR President Charlie Oppler said in a statement.

“NAR leadership and staff had hoped we could gather in person for our 2021 Legislative Meetings, but after the success and record registration we witnessed last May, we are confident that more Realtors will be better served by holding this year’s conference virtually.”

Continuing coronavirus restrictions in D.C. would also have made holding the event in-person safely “nearly impossible” as the district’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, has reinstituted a ban on indoor gatherings of more than 10 people and indoor eating in restaurants is still not allowed, NAR said. Realtors would also not be able to meet in person with elected officials because the U.S. Capitol is closed to visitors indefinitely.

NAR said last year that it would implement new virtual opportunities for member participation within all of its meetings and events. NAR declined to say last week whether that would be the case for its 2021 RPAC President’s Circle Conference in April, which is still listed on NAR’s website as the first in-person event the trade group plans to hold, in Maui. The event typically has 1,500 attendees, according to an FAQ on NAR’s website.

After Inman published an article about the event last week, some Realtors on Facebook questioned whether it would be “the first COVID-19 super spreader event of the industry.”

Budge Huskey | Photo credit: Premier Sotheby’s International Realty

“Totally irresponsible if they proceed,” said Budge Huskey, CEO of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty. “I’m amazed by all the local association Realtor inauguration and award functions being held in person with hundreds in attendance. How absolutely tone deaf can they be as they set the worst possible example.”

Matthew Ferrara

Real estate speaker Matthew Ferrara noted that the world death toll had just crossed 2 million.

“There is absolutely no reason to take this risk, nothing that couldn’t be handled with maximum safety using technology and it’s borderline unethical to even propose it,” he wrote. “What a missed opportunity to step up and be a leader. Maybe the Code of Ethics needs a preamble that says ‘First Do No Harm.'”

Andrea Geller

Andrea Geller

While some Realtors pointed out that the event was not mandatory, others said that it was a “perk” for RPAC investors and unnecessary.

“A perk trip to Maui because of how much you donated to RPAC should never have been a consideration this year,” wrote Andrea Geller, a broker at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Chicago.

Other Realtors suggested that the event would ultimately be postponed or go virtual, like the midyear conference.

But Cindi Bulla, immediate past chairman of Texas Realtors and an NAR director, made the case that the event could potentially be held safely, noting that President-Elect Biden had promised “another million doses” of the coronavirus vaccine in the first quarter. (Biden has actually promised 100 million doses in his first 100 days.)

“[Hawaii] is inviting tourists now, but requiring evidence of a negative COVID test before flying as the only way to avoid a 10 day quarantine,” Bulla wrote. “Many of us will be vaccinated by then. It may yet be postponed, but my hope is that we can safely and responsibly attend in April. Our economy, certainly the HI economy, and our profession, needs to resume as soon as we safely can. I trust our President Charles Oppler and his leadership team to make the right decision, and will support their call.”

Oppler responded to Bulla’s comment saying he hoped that “we can safely travel very soon,” but did not respond to other comments on the thread.

In an emailed statement on Tuesday, a spokesperson for NAR said the trade group “has been closely monitoring national, state, and local guidelines and recommendations regarding travel and group gatherings.”

“Hawaii is currently open to travelers and has instituted a Safe Travels Program, which grants entry to travelers with a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival,” the NAR spokesperson said.

“While it is our hope to execute an in-person event in April, the safety of our members remains our top priority and we will closely monitor this situation over the coming weeks before announcing a final decision no later than February 15, 2021. Conference registration fees are fully refundable at any time should our members choose not to attend an in-person event.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a comment from NAR.

Email Andrea V. Brambila.

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