By JAMEY KEATEN and FRANK JORDANS
GENEVA (AP) — The Geneva auto show was canceled after the Swiss government put an immediate ban Friday on all large events in order to halt the spread of the new coronavirus.
The Swiss ban on public and private events involving more than 1,000 people will last until at least March 15. The move highlights the growing impact of the virus on daily lives and livelihoods, as governments try to fight an outbreak that has infected more than 82,000 people and killed over 2,700 worldwide.
Outbreak concerns have already led organizers to call off several major industry events around the world, including a mobile technology conference that was due to happen this week in Barcelona, Spain, and Facebook’s developer conference set for May in San Jose, California. Still others, such as a cybersecurity conference in San Francisco and a popular video game convention in Boston, proceeded this week even after big companies dropped out. The Geneva International Motor Show was due to run March 5-15 and draws tens of thousands of visitors every year. The event was expected to generate 200 million to 250 million Swiss francs (dollars) worth of spending in the Geneva area.
“We are aware that this measure will have a significant impact on public life,” Swiss interior minister Alain Berset said, insisting it was necessary to help prevent or delay the spread of the virus in Switzerland.
Switzerland has reported 15 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus. The country borders northern Italy, which has seen the largest cluster of cases in Europe.
In other communities hosting big conferences, local authorities have pushed event organizers and marquee exhibitors to proceed as planned and cautioned against overreaction. After Japanese electronics giant Sony announced it was skipping the Pax East gaming conference in Boston over virus concerns, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh urged the PlayStation-maker to reconsider, saying the risk in Massachusetts remains extremely low.
“While we are taking every possible precaution to protect residents, visitors, and workers, we have no reason to believe that people should cancel their plans to visit our city,” Walsh wrote last week to Sony CEO Kenichiro Yoshida.
Sony was a no-show and other game companies scaled back their presence.
Nonetheless, thousands of attendees still thronged an exhibition center for the four-day convention, which opened Thursday. A roving cleaning crew wiped game consoles and controllers with disinfectant after attendees touched them.
“We’re upping all of the hand sanitizer, advising people not to shake hands or hug if you don’t really have to, try to give everyone a little bit of distance,” said Ryan Hartman, an executive with the Pax gaming convention organizer, Penny Arcade Expo.
Dozens of attendees also wore filtration or decorative masks, though it’s not uncommon for enthusiasts to dress up in costume at video game events. Jakeem Johnson said he thought the fears were overblown but as added protection brought a mask representing Scorpion, a fearsome ninja from the fighting game Mortal Kombat.
Maurice Turrettini, chairman of the Geneva auto show’s organizing company, GIMS, said that over 160 brands had been due to exhibit at that show, but it was a case of “force majeure,” a disruption that is out of people’s control that can free businesses from liability in a contract. Exhibitors will not be reimbursed, but ticket-holders will be.
Swiss authorities said that for events with fewer than 1,000 people, organizers must conduct a risk assessment with regional officials. Berset said that large offices or public buildings wouldn’t be shut down by the measure.
Aside from the auto show, affected events include the Baselworld watch and jewelry fair, the traditional Carnival procession in Basel, a ski marathon and several soccer matches. The national Swiss hockey league said all games this weekend will be played behind closed doors, with no fans present.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the ban would also affect meetings at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. The global body has a special extraterritorial status that may exempt it from national health measures. Rolando Gomez, spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Council, said “well over 1,000 participants” were taking part in a four-week session that began Monday.
After organizers of Mobile World Congress canceled the Barcelona show over virus fears, Spanish officials insisted there wasn’t a public health threat. The show normally represents a huge source of revenue for hotels, restaurants and taxi companies.
As for Facebook’s annual F8 conference in San Jose, Facebook said it will donate $500,000 to organizations serving city residents.
In San Francisco, the Game Developers Conference announced Friday that it will postpone its annual conference, which draws people and companies from around the world. Organizers announced no new date, but said it was aiming to hold an event later in the summer.
“Having spent the past year preparing for the show with our advisory boards, speakers, exhibitors, and event partners, we’re genuinely upset and disappointed not to be able to host you at this time,” conference organizers said in a statement.
Before the postponement, the San Francisco Travel Association had sought to tamp down concerns, noting there were no confirmed cases in the city and little reason to worry despite an emergency order to prepare for possible future impacts.
For many companies dropping out of conferences, the concerns have been more about long-distance travel than health conditions in the host city. Facebook said it considered a scaled-back conference, but it “didn’t feel right” to have the event without many of its developers from outside the U.S.
Jordans contributed from Berlin. AP videographer Rodrique Ngowi in Boston and AP Technology Writer Matt O’Brien in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed to this report.
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