Geneva auto show, other major events cancelled amid virus fears

GENEVA (AP) — The Geneva auto show was cancelled after the Swiss government put an immediate ban on Friday on all large events 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 organisers 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 SFr200 million to 250 million worth of spending in the Geneva area.

A game demonstrator uses a disinfectant wipe to clean a game console at the Nintendo Switch exhibit. PHOTO: AP

“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 organisers 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 on 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 organiser, 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.

Chairman of the Geneva auto show’s organising company, GIMS, Maurice Turrettini 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, organisers 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 jewellery fair, the traditional Carnival procession in Basel, a ski marathon and several soccer matches.