Government Operations

Agencies face tough calls on events amid COVID-19

people at a trade show (r.classen/Shutterstock.com)

As the COVID-19 outbreak unfolds, two federal agencies made very different decisions about their big upcoming trade and training events.

On March 4, Customs and Border Protection postponed its 2020 Trade Symposium in California only days before it was to begin, blaming mounting industry cancellations driven by COVID-19 travel restrictions.

On March 5, the General Services Administration  notified participants in its FAST 2020 training conference set for April 14-16 in Atlanta that it will hold the event "as planned." GSA cited guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that called the immediate health risk from the virus low.

The different decisions show the uncertainty for large federally sponsored conferences as the outbreak continues.

In its March 4 announcement, CBP said its decision was driven by attendee cancellations for the event scheduled for March 10-11 in Anaheim, Calif.

"Given the number of cancellations received by trade partners and attendees and the more than two-dozen company travel restrictions that would impact the number of those able to participate, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has made the difficult decision to postpone the 2020 Trade Symposium," a notice posted on the agency's website said.

A CBP official told FCW on background that its decision was driven by 100 Trade Symposium participant cancellations and 29 companies involved with the exhibition that had either imposed or were planning to impose employee travel restrictions.

CBP's 2019 Trade Symposium drew about 1,000 attendees. It typically has a large technology component. The postponed 2020 event had update sessions on CBP's Automated Commercial Environment platform and blockchain tech pilots.

GSA told its registered participants in a March 5 email that it still planned to go ahead with its FAST 2020 training conference in Atlanta. It said its event planning team was watching coronavirus developments closely and following CDC guidance as well as receiving information from the Georgia Department of Public Health and its own emergency response officials. 

GSA quoted the CDC's March 3 assessment that it considered the immediate health risk to be low. "We take the safety and well-being of all of our conference participants seriously and have preparations and plans in place," said the GSA statement.

FAST 2020 is the agency's first large sponsored conference since 2012's Las Vegas meeting that ended in a spending scandal for some of the agency's employees.

CBP and GSA are making the same difficult calls their industry counterparts have made in the last few weeks about whether to go ahead with large conferences, as companies consider the health risk to attendees and restrict employee travel because of the unfolding COVID-19 outbreak.

In late February, managers of the Mobile World Congress, one of the largest telecommunications industry trade shows set for Feb. 24-27 in Spain, cancelled the show because of global concerns over the coronavirus outbreak and its uncertain impact. However, at the same time, the managers of the large RSA cybersecurity conference decided to go on as planned with their San Francisco event.

On March 5, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society announced it had cancelled its annual conference in Orlando, Fla., over COVID-19 worries. President Donald Trump, who has sought to publicly downplay the severity of the crisis, was scheduled to speak at that conference.

Dozens of other technology trade shows have been cancelled or postponed by tech giants, such as Adobe, Apple and Dell, in the last few weeks citing similar concerns over COVID-19.

The CBP official said the agency was working to reschedule the trade symposium but didn't yet have a specific date. COVID-19's impact on events was described as "a fluid situation," and the official said CBP is monitoring CDC recommendations.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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