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Groups seek to ease coronavirus travel fears

U.S. Chamber and four associations urge companies and public to respond to disease calmly and rationally assess risks

March 4, 2020
By Walt Williams

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and associations representing the travel and retail industries are urging businesses and the public not to panic as new cases of COVID-19 emerge in the U.S., particularly in regards to any upcoming travel plans.

Representatives from four associations joined Chamber CEO Tom Donohue during a news conference Wednesday about the potential effects of the virus on the U.S. economy. Concern about spreading the disease has led to a number of trade show and business conference cancellations across the country. However, Donohue emphasized that his group was moving ahead with its upcoming events, including a board meeting next week in Florida, where two cases of COVID-19 were recently confirmed.

“Fear and panic undermine our ability to contain the virus and minimize disruptions to daily life and keep our economy humming along,” Donohue said. “Americans should continue to monitor the situations, but feel confident as they go about their daily lives, head to work, conduct meetings and drop off their children at school.”

The spread of COVID-19—which is a part of the family of coronaviruses—is threatening many segments of the economy, but the travel industry is being particularly hard hit. The U.S. Travel Association forecasts that inbound international travel to the U.S. will drop 6% over the next three months. CEO Roger Dow said at the news conference that domestic airline travel could experience a 2% drop in that same time period.

Airlines for America, which represents U.S. airlines, created a new website—AirlinesTakeAction.com—to help travelers and policymakers keep abreast of developments with the disease. In addition, CEO Nicholas Calio met with Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday to discuss how airlines could assist the government in addressing COVID-19.

At the news conference, Calio emphasized that government officials said the risk to the public from COVID-19 remains low.

“I encourage Americans to go about their lives; that includes travel to California, Oregon and Washington,” he said. (COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in all three states.)

The virus has led to the cancellation of hundreds of trade shows and business conferences across the world, although relatively few of those are in the U.S. Still, many companies have announced new restrictions on business travel in recent days and some have pulled out of upcoming domestic events as a result.

Asked whether businesses that curtail employee travel are overreacting, Dow said those companies are not listening to the facts, which are that there are currently no restrictions on domestic travel.

 “We are seeing cancellations and that hurts the people who need jobs,” he said. “When we see a meeting canceled, who’s out of work? Not me, but a housekeeper, a waiter, the people who need the jobs the most. It’s so important to the American economy that these trade shows and these various meetings take place.”

Stephanie Martz, chief administrative officer and general counsel for the National Retail Federation, said that at least anecdotally, she is not hearing about massive drops in attendance for upcoming events.

“I think people on their own are making very rational decisions about their health and safety,” she said.

Chip Rogers, CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, also emphasized that despite media reports about large trade show cancellations in Chicago and other cities, most U.S. events are currently still scheduled to take place.

“I was talking to another hotel organization just the other day that hosts over 200 meetings a year and I asked them a simple question: Have you canceled a single one of those 200 meetings? And they said no, every single one of those 200 meetings is going to continue,” Rogers said.