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    Friday, March 01, 2024

    Coronavirus spurs cancellations, closures, contingency planning across U.S.

    With daily reports of the deadly coronavirus spreading into communities across the country, schools, companies, religious organizations and local governments are grappling with whether to shut down facilities and cancel events or to proceed, cautiously, as planned. 

    Increasingly, organizations are opting to cancel large gatherings, encourage remote work or take other steps reflecting an abundance of caution about the virus, according to interviews with officials in several states. Others are making contingency plans about more significant steps they might take in the case of a wider outbreak.

    Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said people should prepare for disruptions in their daily lives as a result of the new coronavirus, which has killed nine people in the state.

    "Folks should begin to think about avoiding large events and assemblies," Inslee, a Democrat, said Monday. "We are not making a request formally right now for events to be canceled, but people should be prepared for that possibility."

    More than a dozen states are reporting infections. There have been several instances of people contracting the virus while inside the country. The response effort so far has been fragmented, with conflicting messages about the level of threat and the need for significant lifestyle changes.

    "The general rule is, use common sense," said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

    President Donald Trump, who has played down the risk posed by the outbreak, said he did not agree with contingency plans being considered for the NCAA's March Madness basketball tournament, including a proposal to play games in empty arenas.

    "That's a tough move. No, I'm not prepared for that," Trump said Tuesday. "But let them do what they want to do. ... I don't think it would be necessary."

    With the lack of a coordinated national approach, local officials and individual communities are rushing to make their own plans. Some schools are considering closures, some companies have implemented restrictions on travel for employees, and religious organizations are altering how they they conduct services. Families are reconsidering spring break travel, and organizers of major conferences are weighing whether to move ahead or cancel.

    Emerald City Comic Con, a convention for almost 100,000 comics and pop culture enthusiasts, will go on as planned in downtown Seattle next week.

    More than 2,000 miles away in Chicago, where the virus has had a more limited impact, organizers canceled the country's largest trade show for housewares, fearing that the gathering of 60,000 people could worsen the outbreak.

    Leaders contemplating closures and cancellations must consider whether doing so will do more harm than good by creating a sense of panic or forcing people quickly to make alternative arrangements for matters such as child care, said Brittany Kmush, who teaches public health at Syracuse University.

    "It's definitely going to be a balancing act - balancing the risks and the benefits of canceling schools, businesses, social events," she said. "I don't think there's any kind of blanket right answer."

    In the United States, the impact of the virus has been particularly acute in California's Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley and, now, 11 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections, according to local news reports.

    Several of the country's biggest tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Apple, announced a range of protective measures, canceling employee travel and events involving large gatherings, increasing office cleaning and asking employees to work remotely.

    Monday afternoon, Twitter became the first major technology company in the United States to advise employees to work from home. All employees around the world are being "strongly encouraged" to do so, said Jennifer Christie, Twitter's head of human resources, in a tweet.

    "We are operating out of an abundance of caution and the utmost dedication to keeping our Tweeps healthy," Twitter said in a post announcing the work-from-home plan.

    Google on Tuesday said employees should not take any international trips for work, though they still can travel domestically. The company has more than 118,000 employees around the world and already had some travel restrictions in place for affected countries.

    Facebook canceled its annual F8 developer conference, which brings about 5,000 developers from around the world to Silicon Valley for workshops and product announcements. It was to take place in May in San Jose. Google followed suit on Tuesday, canceling its I/O developer conference, which was scheduled to start May 12 in Mountain View, California.

    Other events are being canceled or postponed over fears that large gatherings could increase transmission of the virus.

    Organizers of SXSW, a sprawling nine-day event in Austin, Texas, that kicks off March 13, say they do not plan to call off the conference. The main event, which drew more than 76,000 attendees last year, will provide extra disinfectant products for attendees.

    School superintendents throughout the country are pondering whether and how to close their school systems as the coronavirus approaches, weighing the pros and cons and seeking advice from outside experts including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state health officials and professional groups.

    Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said his organization fielded at least 60 inquires about closures from concerned superintendents over the past week. Domenech said he gave similar advice to each one: The moment you must drop everything and close, he said, comes when students, parents or teachers contract the disease.

    That holds true even if just one person is infected, Domenech said - because, in schools, illnesses can spread dangerously fast.

    "Schools are the breeding grounds: Teachers are always sick, because kids are always sick," he said. "They bring in the germs and boom, the classroom is infected."

    Throughout Virginia, school officials are huddling in closed-door meetings and dusting off decades-old emergency plans. Some are evaluating the possibility of tele-education, whether that means Skype sessions between teachers and students or reconfiguring existing online learning systems, more typically used to upload assignments such as essays.

    "Our elementary schools for example have iPads," said Frank Bellavia, spokesman for Arlington Public Schools. "Are there ways we could push lessons to iPads? We're trying to plan all that stuff."

    Religious institutions have also been impacted, with pastors, rabbis and imams reconsidering aspects of their services that could expose people to the spread of viruses.

    In Kirkland, Wash., one of the communities hardest-hit by the coronavirus so far, Kol Ami synagogue decided to keep holding worship services, at least until public health officials steer them otherwise. But the synagogue has canceled other events, like "Senior Shmooz" and "Exploring Our Jewish Heritage." While the holiday of Purim falls on Monday night on the Jewish calendar, Kol Ami will postpone its Purim party until late May, Rabbi Yohanna Kinburg wrote on Facebook.

    Kol Ami might be one of the most directly affected synagogues, but many Reconstructionist rabbis are nervous, said Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, the executive director of Reconstructionist Rabbinical Organization. Wechterman said that rabbis have been discussing whether to cancel programs in their private email conversations.

    Reconstructionist rabbis are supposed to hold their biennial convention in Puerto Rico starting March 15. They plan to study issues of importance to the denomination, including climate change and economic inequality.

    "We are - well, we were - well, we still are expecting about 100 rabbis," Wechterman said.

    At this point, if the virus breaks out in Puerto Rico, or other changing conditions force them to cancel their plans, they'll lose much of the money they've already spent on the conference.

    "It will be hard," Wechterman said, before attempting to put things into perspective: "There are currently people in Puerto Rico who are living under tents and don't have roofs."

    Catholic dioceses from California to Boston have advised parishes to rethink some of the ways they worship, whether that means avoiding handshaking during the passing of the peace, asking priests to hand the Communion wafer to parishioners instead of putting it into their mouths, or banning shared Communion cups.

    Political figures also had to weigh the impact of making changes on the campaign trail in response to coronavirus as they prepare for elections in November.

    Trump said Monday he felt his rallies were "very safe" for thousands of people to attend. former Vice President Joe Biden, who is competing in the Democratic presidential primary, told CNN Monday that he was making plans for how he might campaign differently going forward.

    "We're listening to the CDC," he said.

    Ultra Music Festival, a three-day event that is a major tourism boon for Miami-Dade County, is still scheduled to go on as planned March 20 to 22 at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. The electronic music festival, which draws more than 100,000 attendees from around the world, has been held for 20 years.

    Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a tweet Tuesday that Ultra was still on, two days after state officials announced two confirmed cases of the virus.

    "We're not canceling any major events in Miami-Dade County, such as Ultra, following the guidance from Florida's Surgeon General on #Coronavirus," wrote Gimenez, a Republican who is running for Congress.

    That decision was blasted by state Rep. Michael Grieco, a Democrat who represents a district that includes Miami Beach and a part of downtown Miami that hosts the festival. He said that while "nobody wants to cancel Ultra," the health of the community should be the priority.

    "Despite the backlash, I probably would be inclined to heavily, heavily consider canceling the event or pushing the organizers to come up with some alternative dates, something along those lines," he told The Washington Post. "Putting tens of thousands of people sweating all over each other, coughing and sneezing all over each other for two or three days is probably not the smartest idea."

    Ultra representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    Public transportation systems across the country are also making preparations for the anticipated spread of the virus, looking for ways to maintain good hygiene without disrupting commuters.

    In the District of Columbia, Metro activated its pandemic task force in January and it has ordered stepped-up cleaning and disinfecting of stations, buses and rail cars. The agency has ordered 25% more hospital-grade cleaning solution, disposable gloves and face masks as it enters its "Phase 1" emergency preparedness for the possible spread of the illness here.

    Metro could shift into a "Phase 2" if any confirmed cases surfaced in the region, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. He could not say what that phase would entail, partly because it remains unknown to health officials how to combat the novel disease.

    Colleges are also trying to chart a path forward, emailing students best hygiene practices and making plans for how to respond if the virus infected someone on campus.

    At the University of Washington in Seattle, school leaders haven't been advised by public health officials of what might trigger a suspension of operations on campus, said, said Denzil Suite, vice president for student life.

    "We're all in this with the rest of the country," he said, "doing the best we can, with information that seems to be changing hourly."

    Derek Hawkins, Seung-Min Kim, Brittany Shammas, Justin George, Missy Ryan, Susan Svrluga and Laura Stevens contributed to this report.

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