The novel coronavirus, aka COVID-19, has thrown the technology sector for a loop.
Slamming the door shut on in-person events is counterintuitive for an industry that touts connection and collaboration. And yet, that’s precisely what companies like Twitter and Facebook are doing — most recently pulling out of SXSW in Austin, Tex., which, so far, is still slated for later this month.
According to a Facebook spokesman, “Due to concerns related to coronavirus, our company and employees will not be participating in SXSW this year.” On the heels of Facebook’s cancellation on Monday, Twitter pulled cofounder and chief executive officer Jack Dorsey’s slated keynote, and the company scrapped plans for its SXSW #TwitterHouse activation.
The event’s woes don’t stop there. Video-streaming platform Vevo and tech giant Intel has backed out as well; Chinese social video network TikTok is reportedly considering following suit; and media outlet Mashable’s Mashable House and MashBash party are no more.
Publicly, festival organizers remain undeterred. In an update on Monday, the event web site explains, “SXSW is working closely on a daily basis with local, state, and federal agencies to plan for a safe event. As a result of this dialogue and the recommendations of Austin Public Health, the 2020 event is proceeding with safety as a top priority.”
But that doesn’t seem to be easing concerns. At press time, a Change.org petition demanding SXSW’s cancellation racked up more than 34,000 signatures, and several local business owners in Austin have called for the same.
Last year, the multiday international festival drew 417,400 attendees to Austin, with 26 percent coming from 105 different countries.
SXSW is not the only live tech event dogged by the coronavirus. Everything from Mobile World Congress in Spain and San Francisco’s Game Developers Conference to Facebook’s F8 developer conference have been canceled, shifted to video-only events or postponed. Google and Microsoft dropped two of their live industry conferences — Google Cloud Next and the MVP Summit, respectively — in favor of virtual or streaming events. But neither have announced plans for the much more hyped Google I/O and Microsoft Build developer conferences, later this summer. [Update: Google has cancelled Google I/O.] Neither has Apple announced plans for its spring hardware event, which is typically in March, or its Worldwide Developers Conference in June.
The health crisis is also shaping internal policies. Amazon, Apple, Ericsson, Google, LG, Microsoft, Salesforce and Twitter have all curbed business travel for its workers, either in full or for non-essential trips. Amazon and Google report that some of its people have been infected already, including some overseas staffers and at least one U.S. employee who has traveled abroad.
Amazon reportedly has instituted a policy in which people who have to travel must work from home for at least two weeks after returning, and Facebook has urged employees not to bring guests to work and started discouraging on-site job interviews.
Limiting the spread of the contagion is becoming paramount in an escalating scenario that has seen nine deaths in the U.S. and more than 100 confirmed Stateside cases as of this writing, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Reports continue to come in from more than a dozen states across the country, including those that are home to tech hubs, such as California, New York, Texas and Washington state. Globally, Johns Hopkins University believes the death toll has broken 3,110 people, with at least 91,300 cases reported.
Clearly a growing list of organizations are doing what they can to safeguard their employees and stop the contagion’s proliferation. But stopping the fear from spreading is another matter.