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“No handshakes, please”: The tech industry is terrified of the coronavirus

Although public officials in the area say the virus is contained for now, some in the tech industry fear the virus will spread out of control.

Microscopic View of a Coronavirus
A microscopic view of a coronavirus.
CDC/PHIL/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

One of the most prestigious venture capital firms in Silicon Valley, Andreessen Horowitz, recently put up a sign on its door, cautioning eager startup founders and business partners who walk into its offices: “Due to the Coronavirus, no Handshakes please. Thank you.”

It’s unclear how long Andreessen Horowitz — an investor in the likes of Facebook, Airbnb, and Slack — has been greeting visitors with the sign. The move by the firm to put it up, however, is just one example of how some of the most powerful institutions and figures in the tech industry are taking measures to protect themselves from the deadly virus. The new coronavirus disease, now officially known as Covid-19, has taken the lives of nearly 1,400 people so far — most of them in the Hubei province of China, where the outbreak started.

So far, out of 13 total in the United States, four confirmed cases of coronavirus have been reported in the Northern California region, including Silicon Valley. Public health officials in the area have said there’s currently a low risk to public health; the cases, they say, have been contained to those who have recently traveled to Wuhan and their direct family members.

But in tech’s de facto capital, there’s a growing sense of anxiety about the virus quickly spreading out of control. Recode spoke with several employees at major tech companies who were glad that their companies were taking precautionary measures, such as stopping employee travel to the region. Those concerned also pointed to the high rate of travel between the San Francisco Bay Area and China, the fact that people can be infected — and contagious — but show no symptoms for up to two weeks, and that government officials in China downplayed the virus’s initial impact. Some, however, said that a few of the industry restrictions — and the comments by some tech VCs on Twitter — have gone too far.

Aside from the institutional precautions major tech companies like Apple and Google are taking by restricting employee travel and halting operations in China, some tech professionals are taking individual measures to protect themselves.

“I personally wear a P100 mask on all my Ubers, CalTrains, and on MUNI,” Andre Watson, CEO of SF-based gene therapy technology startup Ligandal, told Recode.

If they’re used correctly, P95 and P100 face masks can reduce the likelihood of being exposed to coronavirus by blocking contaminated air particles. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises against people in the US using face masks because most people who aren’t trained medical professionals may not know how to fit them properly, and the risk of exposure in the US is so low to begin with.

Regardless, Watson said he thinks it’s a good idea for more people in the Bay Area to use face masks — and for a venture capital firm like Andreessen Horowitz, which takes many meetings a day with people from around the world, to institute a no-handshake rule.

“While the probability is low that any individual will have [coronavirus], the higher up you go in terms of a person’s wealth or socioeconomic status, the more likely they are to have interacted with someone who is much higher risk,” said Watson, who added that most people in the Bay Area are, to his dismay, “very relaxed right now.” Watson also said he sees an opportunity for tech companies to help diagnose the virus or come up with a vaccine — a problem he said he’s interested in solving.

In some ways, Silicon Valley elites have been preparing for this moment. Tech billionaires and other wealthy Americans have long been gearing up for Doomsday scenarios like a global pandemic that could disrupt societal stability. Some are building out elaborate refuges as far away as New Zealand.

“It’s striking because in the midst of all this wealth, there’s this kind of deep, paranoid fear about bodies and disease,” said Tim Hwang, a technology researcher and editor of essays about Silicon Valley visual culture. “I think in classic Silicon Valley fashion, they’re responding to a genuine problem, but it’s unclear these are effective solutions for the real issue.”

Covid-19, scientists believe, is primarily transmitted through droplets of bodily fluids, such as saliva or mucus, that are dispersed through the air with a cough or sneeze. The CDC says that transmission most often happens in close contact of six feet or less, although simply standing next to someone who has the virus doesn’t guarantee the infection would spread. The virus can also be transmitted by hand-to-hand contact (like a handshake), but that’s a secondary method of transmission, according to Dr. Stanley Deresinski, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care.

Right now, public health officials say there’s little known risk of anyone in Northern California encountering someone with the new coronavirus in public in the first place, since the four confirmed cases are under quarantine. Deresinski said he doesn’t think the risk is “anywhere near sufficient” to warrant reduced contact with people in the Silicon Valley area, even given their relatively high level of travel to and from China.

“The chances are astonishingly low that you would come into contact in a coronavirus infection” at work or in a public setting, Deresinki told Recode, but acknowledged that there’s “always a risk.”

A spokesperson for the Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County public health department said that reducing handshakes is recommended generally to prevent the spread of colds and flu, but not specifically for coronavirus.

A public relations firm representing Andreessen Horowitz declined to respond to Recode’s request for comment about the no-handshake sign.

Three young people walk in front of the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Google is one of several Silicon Valley tech companies that is forbidding its employees from traveling to China.
Amy Osborne/AFP via Getty Images

Given the high volume of regular travel between Silicon Valley and areas most impacted by the coronavirus in China, there’s been a significant disruption to the normal flow of business.

Flights from China to Silicon Valley’s major airport, San Jose International, have been halted until at least March. All travelers returning from Hubei province, China, where the outbreak started, into several major airports including San Francisco are being placed in quarantine with public health monitoring until 14 days after they left China. And the CDC is running “enhanced screenings” of international passengers at San Francisco International Airport by taking their temperatures and looking for coronavirus symptoms.

In recent weeks, tech companies and others in the industry have taken swift action in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Google, Facebook, and Apple have restricted employee travel to China. The companies told employees who have recently traveled to China not to work at the office for up to two weeks.

Facebook cancelled a global marketing summit it had planned to host in March for over 5,000 attendees around the world in San Francisco’s Moscone Center.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we cancelled our Global Marketing Summit due to evolving public health risks related to coronavirus,” Anthony Harrison, a Facebook spokesman sent in a statement to Recode.

Recode has also learned that the Stanford Graduate School of Business — arguably the world’s most elite training ground for budding tech executives and venture capitalists — has canceled its exchange program with students at Tsinghua University in China. The school says the program was canceled one day after it started; Stanford stopped short of expressing concern about its students becoming infected on the trip.

“This was a programmatic decision made due to the changes in air travel to and from China and our concern for the Tsinghua students’ ability to get home, not based on health concerns,” Kristin Harlan, Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) director of strategic communications, told Recode in a statement.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, tech VCs are describing some of their coronavirus anxieties in personal detail and describing additional steps of protocol beyond public health and government recommendations. One VC, David Ulevitch, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, posted an Amazon order screenshot showing protective health purchases like a hazmat suit and respirator. Ulevitch also announced that he won’t be taking in-person meetings with anyone who’s recently traveled to China. It’s unclear if Ulevitch was kidding. A communications representative for Ulevitch from Andreessen Horowitz declined to comment.

Another tech investor, Balaji S. Srinivasan, questioned in a series of tweets whether the city of San Francisco should cancel its annual Chinese New Year Parade — a beloved tradition — over concerns about the virus’s potential spread. Srinivasan shared concern that the virus could be spread through feces spreading on the streets of downtown San Francisco. (There’s been recent evidence that the virus is secreted in human feces, but whether it’s transmitted that way is still unclear.)

There are currently no known cases of coronavirus in the city that have originated in San Francisco itself. Two patients from San Benito County, California, are being treated at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center just south of Golden Gate Park. Meanwhile, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and other city officials publicly reaffirmed their commitment to carrying on with the parade, saying that it posed no public health risk — and the parade went off as planned on Saturday.

Deresinski told Recode that the worry about feces doesn’t make too much sense, but that “mass gatherings at a time of epidemic are always of concern.” Still, he wouldn’t go so far as to recommend canceling the parade.

Srinivasan did not respond to Recode’s inquiry for more context about his comments on Twitter.

Men holding up a dragon puppet run through the streets of San Francisco.
San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Parade describes itself as “the largest celebration of Asian culture outside of Asia.”
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

One Google employee found the company asking coworkers who visited China recently, regardless of which region, to stay home for over a week to be overreach. They especially took issue with the company sending people from places like Beijing, outside the center of the outbreak in Wuhan, to work from home instead of coming into the office.

“That’s like saying you can’t come in if you visited Chicago because of the flu outbreak in New York City,” the employee told Recode.

Some have criticized comparing the coronavirus to the flu because it has a far higher fatality rate and that it distracts from the new virus’s severity. But the fact remains that, so far, the flu has impacted far more people. The CDC estimates that 10,000 people have died from the flu this season, with some 19 million people in the US having experienced flu illness. Data from the CDC suggests that the flu is a greater threat to Americans than the coronavirus. Yet unlike the flu, the coronavirus is new and not well understood, which makes it especially scary to the public, including Silicon Valley’s elite.

The threatening uncertainties surrounding the global health crisis have also fueled racist sentiment in California. Asian Americans have reported being discriminated against, everywhere from college campuses to retail stores. In Santa Clara County, the public health officer, Dr. Sara Cody, said in a public video that “it’s disturbing to hear that discrimination is happening toward people of Asian descent.”

And at UC Berkeley, another feeder school for the tech industry, school officials were criticized after its Department of Health Services published a now-deleted post on Instagram saying that bigotry and bias toward people from Asia are “normal” and “common” reactions to the coronavirus outbreak. The University’s health services department apologized amid the backlash and deleted the post.

These examples show there’s a fine line between general concern about the virus and targeted xenophobia toward Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. As Vox’s Nylah Burton explained after the outbreak of the new coronavirus, xenophobia toward East Asian immigrants has long “been intertwined with public health discourse” about cleanliness and the spread of disease.

The public concern from Silicon Valley leaders or companies has not been discriminatory, but the extreme caution some are taking does raise questions about the appropriate level of response. There’s always a chance that the coronavirus could get out of control in tech’s backyard, but to a large extent, people’s individual power to control that is limited, and some may see measures like no-handshake rules as a step too far.

“There’s an essential tension between public health and individual freedom,” said Deresinski. “And that’s where the balance has to be found.”

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