Fed's Jackson Hole shift shows Delta variant's ability to skew plans

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Health officials in Teton County, Wyoming, announced last Thursday what was in part an administrative change, swapping a local five-point index for assessing COVID-19 risk for a four-point scale used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

FILE PHOTO: Teton Mountain Range is pictured from the windows of Jackson Lake Lodge during the three-day “Challenges for Monetary Policy” conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, U.S., August 23, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Crosby/File Photo

But that change promptly pushed the county into the CDC’s highest risk category, and shifted the Federal Reserve’s plans to hold its Jackson Hole central banking conference as an in-person event into non-compliance with local health guidance. Within a day, the U.S. central bank had cancelled the in-person portion of the conference at the local mountain resort.

The annual symposium, organized by the Kansas City Fed, will still take place online and the substance will be the same. Academic research papers will be presented and Fed Chair Jerome Powell will give a speech via webcast on Friday.

Yet the sequence of events last week shows the day-to-day recalibration underway over what is and isn’t safe during the current U.S. COVID-19 surge, which is being fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus. The Fed’s reaction to a county government’s communication choices served as a high-profile example of how the pace of the economic recovery is being reshaped.

The decision certainly diminished public health risks. The guest list for the Fed’s Jackson Hole event had already been pared perhaps by half from a typical year’s crowd of around 150, COVID-19 vaccination was mandatory, and masks required indoors. The cancellation further eliminated travel and two days of in-person sessions, meals and receptions, as well as a typically large slate of sidebar meetings.

It also meant dozens of canceled plane trips, rental cars and hotel rooms for the attendees, their family members or guests, an entourage of press, and others, and refunds of the $1,100 conference fee.

That occurred even though nothing much had changed between the start of the week, when Fed officials were nailing down last-minute plans, and late Friday afternoon, when Kansas City Fed officials called off the in-person gathering “due to the recently elevated COVID-19 health risk level in Teton County, Wyoming.”

Per capita case rates had continued upward, but a dramatic spike in Teton County infections had begun in mid-July and was well underway by the start of August.

What was different was the scale used by county officials to assess the risk. In the CDC’s streamlined index, Teton County was now at the red, or highest, level. In fact, the Atlanta-based health agency moved the county’s risk level to “high” on July 22, according to its online data for Teton County. The local guidance for that risk level discouraged gatherings outside of immediate family members.

‘LOT OF CANCELLATIONS’

The Kansas City Fed had said in May, when it announced it was returning to an in-person conference after moving the annual gathering online last year, that it would “adhere to all health and safety guidelines that are in place at the time of the program.”

A Kansas city Fed official said the regional bank has been monitoring the Teton County health department’s website and made the decision to announce the shift after the close of markets on Friday based on the change of status.

Under the county’s prior index, which included a broader set of considerations such as hospital admissions, supplies of protective equipment, and the availability of testing, the risk level also would have been changed last week from moderate to high, said Jodie Pond, the county’s health director.

The local guidance for that risk level under the prior system, however, did not recommend family-only gatherings, a suggestion reserved for the county’s highest “critical” risk stage.

“There have been a lot of cancellations of events and that was not our goal, to cancel events if they could be done safely,” Pond said of the recent change. “I don’t want to second-guess an event organizer because I am always going to err on the side of canceling, to err on the side of caution … I would say it is probably okay – nobody asked us – if people were masked indoors and required to be vaccinated.”

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