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Facebook canceled a 5,000-person conference in San Francisco because of coronavirus

It’s the latest example of how the tech industry is reacting to worries about the virus’s spread.

A man walking down the street with a surgical mask over his face carrying flowers in Hong Kong
Fears over the potential spread of the novel coronavirus is causing tech companies like Facebook to halt employee travel to China and now, cancel an international conference in San Francisco
Photo credit should read Miguel Candela / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media 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.

Facebook is canceling an annual marketing conference it was planning to host in San Francisco next month over concerns about the new coronavirus — now officially known as Covid-19.

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

The social media giant confirmed that it has scratched its plan to hold the event for 5,000 international attendees at the Moscone Center on March 9-12, as first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s the latest sign of how the outbreak, which has taken the lives of nearly 1,400 people as of Friday, is impacting business in the tech industry. Earlier this week, the world’s biggest phone show, Mobile World Conference, canceled its event in Barcelona after major tech companies like Amazon pulled out of the event.

But the Facebook marketing summit is the first publicly reported example of an event in the San Francisco Bay Area being canceled due to the virus. While there are four cases of novel coronavirus in Silicon Valley, public health officials say that the handful of cases are contained to those who either recently traveled to Hubei, where the virus started, or had close contact with family members who did.

That hasn’t stopped Silicon Valley from worrying — particularly because of the high level of travel between the area and China.

And as Recode reported earlier this week, some in Silicon Valley feel a mounting fear over the possibility of the coronavirus spreading in Silicon Valley. Facebook’s call to cancel its conference because of the virus is an amplified example of how coronavirus fears are impacting day-to-day business in the tech industry. Some tech companies and professionals in the Bay Area are instituting no-handshake policies in business meetings, wearing masks on public transportation, and asking people to work from home.

Recode has also learned that Google recently put up signs in at least two Bay Area offices outside bathrooms reminding people to wash their hands and cover their mouths, with a link to an internal site about the coronavirus at the bottom. The intranet site has infection prevention tips like asking employees who host events to make sure there is sufficient hand sanitizer and “appropriate hand-washing facilities,” according to a source who works at the company.

While public health officials are encouraging people to take some precautions like washing their hands frequently and minimizing contact with anyone with cold symptoms (as they would normally do anyway during flu season), they say that there’s currently a very low risk to public health in the Bay Area.

“The chances are astonishingly low that you would come into contact with a coronavirus infection” at work or in a public setting in Silicon Valley, Dr. Stanley Deresinski, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told Recode last week. He acknowledged, though, that there’s “always a risk.”

But that risk could go up (it’s hard to say by how much) at a public event where there may be people attending who have recently traveled to impacted regions, Deresinski said. Facebook’s now-canceled conference would have brought attendees from around the world whose travel history was unknown. Currently, direct flights between the San Francisco Bay Area and China have been halted until March. But that doesn’t stop people who may have traveled to those areas in the past few weeks from attending, or may have traveled to the US via other routes, like flying into Los Angeles — which as of Friday, passengers can still do (passengers coming into many major US airports are still being screened for Covid-19 symptoms by US Customs and Border Patrol).

Still, as Recode previously reported, some tech employees find tech companies halting work travel broadly between East Asia and the US to be overly draconian. They say that the annual flu is likely a greater threat, given that some 10,000 people in the US have died from the flu this season alone, according to the CDC.

But Covid-19 is more deadly than the flu if you catch it. Two percent of people who caught coronavirus have died from it, scientists estimate, as opposed to 0.1 percent of people who catch the flu. And how the coronavirus is transmitted is far less understood. It also continues to spread in China, a country that tech companies have close business connections with. Because of all this, we’re seeing tech companies take strong precautions, no matter the cost, to guard against the outbreak. Facebook canceling this event is just another confirmation of that.