Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Ok, that click-bait worked.  I really meant to write: “Conferences in the Time of Coronavirus.”  Anyhow, the title of this post is not completely wrong, since a lot of us scientists really do love our conferences.

This post is intended especially for people who are involved in organizing scientific and other professional conferences and similar events where many people come to meet, learn, and socialize. 

You may have heard that the American Physical Society cancelled its scheduled annual meeting in Denver at the last minute. Thousands of the approximately 10,000 expected attendees from around the USA and world had already arrived in Denver, and many more were in transit.  It is certainly inconvenient and frustrating for all involved.

Personally, I think the meeting organizers did the right thing, given the uncertainty about the extent of spread in this country at this very moment. This uncertainty reflects, in part, the late-breaking news from Washington, Oregon, and California of previously undetected community spread. (Because of the absence of appropriate testing in the USA, this transmission was not discovered as soon as it should have been, but many experts thought it was likely happening.)

The question now is for all those organizers who have events planned for next week, this month, next month, this summer, and so on.  What are your plans, and how will you communicate them to your attendees?

Some may decide to cancel right away, given the prevailing uncertainty and risks.  If you cancel and have sufficient time, then hopefully you can find a way to hold some, many, or even most of the events online.

Others may want to hold off on making a decision, but for how long? That will depend on how much time you have before your conference or other event.  For those with a month or more before an event begins, I would suggest the following:

Communicate with your membership and potential attendees right now. Tell them the timeline for your decision-making.

Something like this, perhaps: “We will announce our formal decision of whether to hold the conference on such-and-such date, which is X weeks in advance of the scheduled start of our conference. However, there remains the possibility of cancellation even after that time, if the coronavirus situation becomes substantially worse after our announcement, or if federal or local authorities recommend or require a cancellation.”

How many is X weeks?  Meeting planners will have better insights than me into that question.  But maybe 6 weeks for an international conference, 4 weeks for a national one, and maybe 1 or 2 weeks for local events (including departmental seminars at universities). Anyhow, the details will depend, but clear and timely communication is important in all cases.

One more thing: Organizers need to take into account that they may decide to hold the event, but some anticipated attendees and even speakers may choose to not attend.  Respect individual decisions.  People have different concerns reflecting their own health situation, the health of family members, the potential for travel headaches, and more.

Given the above, conference organizers may also want to poll (at a strategically chosen time or two) pre-registered attendees and presenters about their plans for attendance.

ADDED by Laura Williams (aka @MicroWavesSci):  Conference organizers, especially for national and international events, should contact–and stay in close contact with–health authorities for the host city, state, and country.

ADDED: Worried about sounding like an alarmist?  Read these Words of Wisdom.

ADDED: “Thinking about hosting a virtual meeting? The org committee of @PhotonicsMeetup wrote a ‘how to’ guide to help!”  h/t Andrea Armani (@ProfArmani) via @TedPavlic







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8 responses to “Love in the Time of Coronavirus

  1. well,it worked! I do host small statistics workshops and think this advice may apply in the very near future to how I schedule them. Hopefully not.

  2. tjvision

    Excellent post. I just want to add that even if the hard decision must be made to cancel an IRL conference, the scientific talks can still go on. At least one of the American Physical Society divisions has – overnight – crowdsourced organization of a virtual conference in place of their March meeting ( Of course attendees will miss out on some useful social interactions, but not having to fit everything into a block of travel and away time has its upsides, too. In recent years, I have enjoyed various virtual seminar series, lab meetings, journal clubs, and community calls, and see that they have certain advantages that IRL conferences lack (inexpensive, easily recorded, easily scalable, etc). They also are good for reducing carbon emissions and not just infectious disease control.

  3. You left off the fact that large conferences and organizers have made large financial commitments to convention centers, convention hotels, and other venues they may have contracts with. If they cancel early, they will be liable to pay our tens, or maybe hundreds, of thousands of dollars if there is not crisis. So the most prudent choice is to go ahead with your plans. If there is a crisis and your conference is severely impacted, then you may have a way out of those obligations if your contracts contain Force Majeure clauses.

    • That’s certainly an issue, Mitch. But in my opinion that should not be the overriding issue. The American Physical Society (APS) just cancelled their largest meeting at the last moment. A very difficult decision, and unpopular to some. If you read my post, I make clear there is time before decisions have to be made — perhaps a few weeks before the event for large national meetings. Meeting organizers may want to speak with APS officers about their decision-making process.

  4. bewilderbeast

    Thank you for this and the ongoing info. I have blogged about it and given your link so my few followers can hopefully also keep up to date and spread the wisdom.

  5. Here’s another possible resource for those considering or planning to switch from a physical meeting to a virtual conference:
    According to Anton Akhmerov (@AkhmerovAnton), “It’s a platform to make hosting virtual conferences as easy as possible. It is set up by a merry bunch of volunteers (myself included), and we’re preparing the inaugural session to run this Friday” [March 6].
    h/t TedPavlic (@TedPavlic)

  6. Pingback: Meetings Large and Small | Telliamed Revisited