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Coronavirus just caused the American Physical Society to cancel its biggest meeting of the year

Citing the growing threat of the coronavirus, the American Physical Society (APS), a 55,000-member professional society for physicists and researchers in associated fields, canceled its largest meeting of the year just 34 hours before it was supposed to begin. APS’s March Meeting was to be held this week at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, and the society anticipated more than 10,000 people from all over the world would attend. However, late yesterday, APS issued a statement abruptly calling off the meeting.

“The decision to cancel was based on the latest scientific data being reported, and the fact that a large number of attendees at this meeting are coming from outside the U.S.,” including countries where the coronavirus is circulating and for which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised people to avoid nonessential travel, the APS statement says. “[T]his decision was made out of deep concern for the health and well-being of our registrants, staff, vendors, and the Denver community.”

Unfortunately for many researchers, the notice came only after they’d arrived in Denver. “Holy sh*t! #apsmarch meeting is cancelled!” tweeted Kees Storm, an expert in the theory of polymers and soft matter from Eindhoven University of Technology. “1000s of people must already be here in Denver, this is major. No idea what I should do now; already here and all booked for a whole week …” He later tweeted that he had “calmed down” and was able to book an earlier flight home.

Others worried about the costs, especially for the thousands of graduate students who typically give contributed talks at the meeting. “I understand their decision, but horrible timing,” tweeted Una Goncin, a graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan. “I feel esp sorry for all the grad students who will have to pay out of pocket for this!” APS says it will refund the conference registration fees, which can range up to $695 for regular members and $305 for graduate student members, and will try to help registrants recoup fees for unused hotel reservations.

Many physicists in Denver and elsewhere appeared to be trying to make the best of the situation, with some proposing they post talks online. “Maybe this can also become a thing [for future meetings] and we can help those unable to travel and also reduce some carbon output,” tweeted Christopher Savoie, co-founder and CEO of Zapata Computing, a quantum computing company spun out of Harvard University.

APS leadership now faces a similar decision for its other big annual confab, the somewhat smaller April Meeting, which is scheduled for 18–21 April in Washington, D.C. Elsewhere in the world, the coronavirus outbreak has already snarled research, causing the cancellation or postponement of meetings and research efforts.