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I am an organizer for a graduate student conference in Mathematics occurring in April. My co-organizers and I are debating on a plan for what to do if the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States worsens. Right now, most of the participants are from states with no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but this may change rapidly as the situation develops between now and the conference.

This is an issue other conferences throughout history have surely had to deal with, so I wanted to ask StackExchange if there were any best practices around for dealing with an issue like this. Some questions:

  • How far out should the go/no go decision be made? If the conference is late April, should we be planning to let participants and speakers know by early April so they can cancel flights and so on?
  • What criteria should best inform whether we cancel or not? Number of cases in the participants' states for instance?
  • In the event we are to cancel the conference, how can we still give the speakers a chance to advertise their results? Have there been successful "video conferences" before where the organizers collect video for each talk and then upload them and participants can make comments?
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    You may not have any choice about cancellation. You have no control over travel. The virus has spread more widely than is currently reported (as is always the case), partly due to the poor testing regimen. It seems a poor time to be planning any public meeting, especially if travel is needed and if it lasts several days. Consider postponement now. – Buffy Mar 5 at 16:38
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    Please remind all participiants to make clear who pays for the flight if (a) the conference is cancelled, (b) the people cannot/don't want to fly do to health reasons/travel restrictions. In case they use a travel storno insurance , they should remember to clear it up with their institution who pays for the insurance. – user111388 Mar 5 at 16:41
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    This year's APS March meeting (huge physics conference) was supposed to happen this week. It was canceled 10pm the day before most domestic participants would travel, and after many people had already arrived to the location. That's leaving it very late. On the other hand, they were just reacting to the latest CDC update. It's very hard to plan around such a rapidly evolving situation. – Anyon Mar 5 at 19:17
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    For non-physicists, the American Physical Society March meeting is about 10000 attendees. – Jon Custer Mar 6 at 0:14
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    One data point, MSRI just moved all the conferences in March online. – Noah Snyder Mar 6 at 16:48
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Regarding remote conferences, these have been successful. Often the motivating factor has been mitigating climate impact. For example, Yale Climate Connections wrote an article giving advice for running virtual conferences. Author Sara Peach presents three kinds of virtual conferencing, all of which have been done successfully:

  • remote presentations in a traditional conference format. If people choose to not travel, they can still remote in or follow the session on social media. (Example: AGU)

  • hub-based conference, where people gather in regional clusters. Each hub has some of its own content but are able to watch each other's presentations. (Example: International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition)

  • an entirely remote conference, where people record and upload videos of presentations and conferencegoers have weeks to ask questions and interact. (Example: A Nearly Carbon-Neutral Conference Model)

I'll add that an entirely virtual synchronous conference has also been done successfully. One example is NACADA, the Global Community for Academic Advising, which ran a 24-hour live-streaming virtual conference.

The mixed-conference or hub models may or may not be feasible, since they would still involve people gathering in some models, and you aren't sure yet whether that will be feasible on any scale. Also, developing regional hubs would take time you don't have. Thus, if you decide to go entirely virtual, a synchronous-with-live-streaming conference and a asynchronous recorded approach have been done, and the resources linked should provide a way to start researching or planning that model. I also advise contacting your own IT department about the possibility.

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  • I am accepting your answer because of the extremely in-depth nature and excellent external resources. All the answers provided great advice on different aspects of the question so I wish I could accept all three, but alas... – walkar Mar 9 at 16:54
  • Another example of a virtual/remote conference was just announced - ICLR (International Conference on Learning Representations, a major computer science/machine learning conference) are cancelling the on-site conference and switching to virtual presence (iclr.cc/Conferences/2020/virtual) with all papers presented using a pre-recorded video and registered participants getting access to online QA sessions with the authors. – Peteris Mar 11 at 1:27
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Cancellations of venue, catering, etc. on your end will be entirely based on the individual companies' cancellation policies. Same with airlines for participants - each requires a certain amount of notice, and will refund or credit as per company policy. Sooner is better than later if you need to cancel arrangements for food, accommodations, etc.

The most reliable resource for info on COVID-19 at this point is the WHO, which provides situation reports daily on their website. The CDC's information is being filtered through the presidential administration, so keep that in mind when looking at White House press releases. Travel advisories are also something you'll want to keep an eye on if you're concerned. Your local health authority can also provide information about whether they are recommending cancellation of large gatherings.

If you decide to go ahead with the conference and have concerns about possible spread of coronavirus, perhaps remind attendees of the importance of handwashing and covering your cough in your opening remarks. Have hand sanitizer accessible to participants, and encourage "elbow bumps" instead of handshakes. Supplying and using facemasks is NOT being recommended at this time to the general public, so please don't go out and buy them in anticipation of the conference. This could contribute to a shortage for those who could actually need them, i.e. hospital staff.

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I'm in Germany and just got an email that a trade fair and conference that was supposed to happen in the first week of April was postponed to October due to the virus.

  • The email indicated that the decision was made by the organization running the fair grounds together with the local/regional health authorities.
    I'd suggest that you get into contact with your relevant health authorities.
    I'd also suggest you check the contracts for venue etc. about cancellation policies and whether it makes a difference on your side (your cancellation policies with venue etc.) whether you decide to cancel or whether the health authority tells you to cancel.

  • On the participants' side: I don't think I could have gotten reimbursement for the fees that would have been due for cancelling the travel - and if probably only after months of burocratic struggle with administration.
    Update I may have been too pessimistic here: the professional society who organizes the conference now asks who had how much "leftover costs" after cancellations. They also outlined some rules (e.g. they cancelled the hotel where they had reservations for invited speakers, cancellation fees of other accomodation is probably not going to be reimbursed). end of update

    This is of course up to local rules, but if the rules around you do not reimburse if the travel had not taken place*, please cancel or postpone the meeting ASAP.
    The more so as you say it's for grad students who due to being early in their carreer did not yet have the chance to accumulate emergency funds that should be able to eat such losses.

    As a compromise (if you do not want to decide yet), you could also consider to remind people that the meeting may have to be canceled on short notice and recommend to take that into consideration for booking the travel.


* Personally, I think this may be used as a trigger to openly discuss travel booking and reimbursement policies. IMHO there are several possible fair policies, but they should be communicated clearly and in advance: should early booking and fixed travel plans be used as they are usually cheaper? Should cancellation insurance be booked or not? What are good reasons to cancel and how does reimbursement work then?

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A conference called ACM UIST allowed participants to join online via social virtual spaces. You don't need fancy virtual reality equipment to join. They used Mozilla hubs which seems straight forward and easy to set up.

More info here: https://uist.acm.org/uist2019/online/ and https://hubs.mozilla.com/

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