Event organizers cancel conferences, grapple with coronavirus outbreak

TORONTO — Organizations across the country are cancelling conferences, fretting about whether to forge ahead with events and considering more health-conscious policies as concerns grow over the recent outbreak of a novel form of coronavirus.

Ottawa-based e-commerce giant Shopify Inc. announced Friday that it had made the "hard but necessary" decision to cancel its annual Unite conference that was set to be held in Toronto on May 7.

"We believe this is the best option to make sure we don't put anyone's health and safety at risk," the company said in a statement.

Shopify is in the process of contacting people who had planned to attend, issuing refunds on tickets and working out how to share the product and service announcements it planned to make at the conference.

Shopify says more than 1,000 people from across the globe attended the conference in its last two years, where they were first to learn about the company's plans for a U.S. fulfilment network and its first brick-and-mortar location in Los Angeles

Meanwhile, coronavirus fears weren't enough to cause Magna International Inc. to cancel its investor day on Thursday at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto.

However, the Aurora, Ont.-based auto parts maker did post a sign advising attendees to avoid shaking hands.

The Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada also said it is forging ahead with its annual conference at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, which opens on Sunday and typically attracts more than 25,000 attendees from 130 countries.

President Felix Lee said the conference has seen some cancellations from exhibitors and attendees in Iran, China, South Korea and Italy — countries that have been hit hard by the virus or have travel restrictions in place.

Lee said PDAC is keeping a close eye on the coronavirus situation on a "pretty much hourly basis," had been in contact with local health authorities about best practices and was co-ordinating with its venues, the convention centre and the local Fairmont Royal York hotel.  

"The staff in these two facilities will be increasing their sanitization of high-contact surfaces, meaning door knobs, door handles, railings, escalators, touch-screen monitors, microphones and so on," he said.

"There will be increased signage throughout the conference floor reminding attendees of appropriate hygiene procedures to adopt and there is increased access to hand sanitizer."

The organizers of Collision, an annual tech conference that boasts a lineup of business heavyweights and celebrities, said they were also watching out for coronavirus fears, despite their event being months away.

This year's Collision will run from June 22 to 25 at the Enercare Centre in Toronto.

Bianca Delbao, a spokesperson for the conference, said in an email to The Canadian Press that Collision regularly liaises closely with whatever city is hosting the event to ensure "the utmost safety, security and welfare standards (are) in place for our attendees."

Collision is recommending attendees regularly monitor the Public Health Agency of Canada and their country's travel advisories for advice around coronavirus.

Delbao added, "We are closely monitoring the situation should circumstances change."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 28, 2020.

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Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press