COVID-19: Gates warns against mass gatherings before virus vaccinations

Tech conferences like Embedded World in Germany have set dates to return in early 2021, about the time COVID-19 vaccines emerge. (Embedded World)

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said in a CBS interview on Thursday that mass gatherings might have to become optional or “not come back at all” until populations are widely vaccinated.

Given that COVID-19 vaccines are not expected to be generally available until 2021, his warning appears especially stark for businesses of all types, but especially those that attract large crowds like baseball games and tech conferences.

According to a CBS transcript of the interview, Gates said he thought the response to COVID-19 would be a “bit faster…how we’re having to change the economy here in order to drop the number of cases, it’s really unprecedented. Even the issue of once you get the case numbers down…what does opening up look like? You know, which activities... like schools have such benefit and can be done in a way that risk of transmission is very low?“

“And which activities, like mass gatherings, may be—in a certain sense—more optional. And so until you’re widely vaccinated, those may not come back at all,” Gates added.

With so many businesses focused on surviving for the next two months amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many executives have found it almost impossible to plan for the fall or the next year or two, much less five years or 10 years into the future.

Restaurants and bars are closed, and airlines are shutting down as first responders and nurses try to keep people from dying, but the tech industry also faces questions of its own about which electronics-focused conferences and events will go ahead. Mass gatherings like Mobile World Congress 2020 in Barcelona in February were canceled, and smaller events were also shuttered, such as APEC 2020 in New Orleans in mid-March. 

Still, Embedded World 2020 went ahead in Nuremburg, Germany from Feb. 25-27 but with significantly fewer exhibitors and attendees than in prior years. More than 900 exhibitors from 42 countries presented, while 13,800 visitors and speakers from 46 countries attended, according to the event’s website. About 200 companies withdrew.

And yet, planning for Embedded World 2021 is going ahead, to be held again in Nuremberg March 2-4, 2021, according to a March 1 tweet and a web notice from organizers. International CES 2021 in Las Vegas is also set for Jan. 6-9, 2021, and MWC 2021 in Barcelona is scheduled for March 1-4, 2021.

MWC in 2019 attracted 2,400 exhibitors and 109,000 visitors from 198 countries, organizers said.

Deaths from COVID-19 reached nearly 50,000 globally on Thursday, while U.S unemployment claims reached 6.6 million for the week ending March 28.

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