I am obviously no medical expert, and I would not presume to offer that sort of advice regarding anyone’s health or safety. But through the Event Safety Alliance, I am pleased to say that I know the right people, and you can too. [Author’s caveat: This material was current as of March 2, 2020. In the words of noted economist Paul Samuelson, “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?”]
On Wednesday, March 4, at 2:00 PM EST, 11 AM PST, the Event Safety Alliance hosted a webinar by Stuart Weiss, M.D., Prepare Your Organization for the Coronavirus Disease Outbreak. Dr. Weiss is both a medical doctor and a business continuity expert focused on special event and event production clients. Because ESA thinks everyone should have at least a basic understanding of COVID-19 in order to replace fear with facts, the webinar is completely free – you simply have to register by clicking the link. And we followed up with an Event Safety Podcast dedicated entirely to coronavirus and its implications for the live event industry.
Once you have a foundation of understanding, I recommend staying up to date with the domestic and global medical authorities. I trust the scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which has useful guidance regarding prevention and treatment, as well as more general background about the disease. The World Health Organization offers similar information, as well as FAQs and travel advice, which seems helpful for event professionals who travel internationally. I am also a fan of John Oliver, who, while not quite authoritative, has what I consider an excellent perspective on what we know so far.
At the risk of seeming cavalier about what public health experts have called a “pandemic,” the recommended precautions I’ve seen remind me of little kid hygiene lessons. Wash your hands well; sneeze into your arm, not your hands; use alcohol-based solution to kill germs on contact. As I was leaving Arizona State University’s law school building Monday night, I discovered more than a dozen new hand sanitizer dispensers ready to be deployed. You do not have to be associated with America’s most innovative university to recognize that everyone can mitigate some of their own risk.
As for the problem of event cancellation, I see two primary issues, and one common solution.
As a matter of law, a health scare of this magnitude is likely a force majeure event under any contract. Force majeure is Latin for ‘greater force,’ what many people refer to as an Act of G-d. In legal terms, it refers to something that is completely beyond the control of either contracting party which makes performance of the contract essentially impossible. If force majeure is invoked, the contract can be cancelled, and neither party is supposed to be penalized more than the other because the need to cancel is neither of their fault. That’s the idea, anyway. In reality, cancellation is bad for everyone. More on the significance of that in a moment.
As with most other risks, the risk that an event or job will be cancelled can be hedged by purchasing insurance. Cancellation policies, however, are narrowly construed just like all other insurance provisions. Business interruption coverage applies only when there is physical damage to property, which obviously does not apply here. Event cancellation coverage arising from communicable or infectious disease applies only if the infection occurs at the event, which likely won’t apply to coronavirus either. And coverage is no certainty for any event that cancels when fear of contagion arguably outstrips actual illness.
I am intentionally making general statements here because all contracts contain specific provisions that determine how they should be interpreted. If you want to know how your Subcontractor Agreement or insurance contract actually works under your circumstances, I suggest you consult a legal or insurance professional. (Hint: I know a guy.)
The reality check here is that we are an industry built on relationships. That is to say that what anyone is contractually able to do in the short term may not be in their long-term interest at all. In recent days, I have suggested to several clients that rather than cancelling a job entirely, they offer to work with their vendor colleague to postpone the job until this storm has passed. Then, when patrons feel safe again returning to sports and entertainment venues, there will be plenty of work for everyone. For the present, we’re all in this together. In the (hopefully near) future, the rising tide will lift all boats – also together.
Postscript, March 12, 2020: I took the photo shown above on what may be my last Monday night teaching on campus this semester. Arizona State University, like many other schools and other public accommodations, has taken social distancing seriously and gone entirely online.