Navigating Conferences in the Time of Coronavirus

Don't panic, and other advice from event experts

Medical professionals said to avoid shaking hands at conferences. Getty Images
Headshot of Ian Zelaya

Key insights:

The World Health Organization has declared 2019-nCov, a novel strain of the coronavirus, a global health emergency. The epidemic has killed more than 1,000 people, mostly in China, and is impacting major industry events.

Brands like Facebook, Sony and Intel have pulled out of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and it’s unclear how the virus might affect upcoming international conferences like SXSW or Cannes Lions. So we asked health professionals from companies that specialize in providing medical services at events for tips on what attendees should do to avoid getting sick at mass gatherings.

Avoid shaking hands—and wash them frequently

Dr. Matt Friedman of CrowdRx, which has offered services at events like the U.S. Open and Global Citizen Festival, said attendees should avoid handshakes or close contact with people as much as possible, as the virus spreads person-to-person (within 6 feet) through respiratory droplets, like influenza. Regardless, he recommends washing hands frequently, avoiding touching your eyes until after you’ve washed your hands, and sneezing and coughing into your elbow.

Dr. Celine Thum, medical director at ParaDocs Worldwide Inc., which has offered services for San Diego Comic-Con and the Democratic National Convention, added that best health practices at events are as simple as protecting yourself from a common cold.

“Hand-washing and practicing basic hygiene is the best way to protect each other,” she said. “Don’t share glasses or anything that someone else might have used. Take basic precautions that we’re all used to.”

Don’t wear a surgical mask if you’re not sick

The CDC doesn’t recommend that people who are healthy wear face masks to protect themselves, but the federal agency does recommend it for health workers and people showing symptoms. Thum added that since viruses are transmitted through droplets, masks won’t necessarily protect healthy people from getting sick.

Stay updated on treatment and testing

Dr. Snehalata Topgi of ParaDocs Worldwide added that attendees should know the FDA has approved a special test for the virus, and only suspected individuals are being tested. She also noted that coronavirus is a common infection, but the novel strain of 2019-nCov isn’t and there’s currently no vaccine.

Don’t panic

“We’ve seen MERS and SARS. The whole world works well together to contain these viruses,” Thum said. “People can’t worry. The risk is there but it’s very low, especially with all the precautions the world has taken.”

WHO has partnered with social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and TikTok to limit the spread of misinformation of the coronavirus and reach the right audience in most affected countries with 2019-nCoV, as well as to detect spread of misinformation.

“When their users are searching for new coronavirus-related information, they are redirecting their users to WHO page on their platform or to our webpage,” explained Carla Drysdale, communications officer for WHO.

Drysdale said WHO also tracks myths and rumors through its offices worldwide.

Use public resources

WHO, the CDC and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control all offer safety measures and precautions on their websites and social media platforms. Thum added that organizers of major events should also be taking precautions based on CDC guidelines. Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.