Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Kate Kirby, a theoretical physicist, has been CEO of the 55,000-member American Physical Society since 2015.

Harold Dorwin/Center for Astrophysics/Harvard & Smithsonian

‘We had to act.’ How coronavirus fears forced physics society to nix giant meeting

The March Meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) wasn’t the first event canceled for fear of the coronavirus, but it was nixed in dramatic fashion. Late on 29 February, APS canceled its biggest meeting of the year just 36 hours before it was set to start. Nearly 11,000 physicists had registered for the conference, scheduled for 2–6 March, and many had already arrived in Denver for it.

The potential threat to meeting attendees and local residents drove the decision to cancel, APS CEO Kate Kirby told ScienceInsider on Monday in a call from Denver. Now, the organization is dealing with the fallout, from canceled hotel reservations to complaints from members, she said. But this won’t be the last time Kirby will have to make such a call: APS has a somewhat smaller April Meeting, which covers different subfields, scheduled for 18–21 April in Washington, D.C.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What might the cancellation cost the society?

A: The costs will be large, but that was the least of our considerations. We focused on the safety and the health of our community, registrants, vendors, the APS staff, and the Denver community. Sometimes we forget that a meeting like this is held in the middle of a thriving city, and if something happens at a meeting it can really have repercussions on the whole city.

Like any good scientific organization, we get meeting insurance. Right now, it’s clear that the insurance folks are totally overwhelmed. So it’s not at all clear what the final financial toll will be. But we are refunding all the registration fees and are working with the hotels. If people booked within the APS hotel blocks, we’ve asked they not be charged anything.

Q: But had the meeting gone ahead, the expenses would have been millions of dollars, right?

A: Yes, absolutely. All in all, it can be about $7 million for a meeting like this, about 10% of our operating budget in a year.

Q: If I’ve understood you correctly, the decision was as much about protecting local residents as the people coming to the meeting.

A: Absolutely. Generally, about 30% of the people at the March Meeting are coming from outside the United States. And we had at least 500 attendees coming from South Korea and Italy, countries for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a level three alert [which advises against nonessential travel]. And that was issued Saturday afternoon. And we had more than 300 attendees coming from Japan, which is undergoing strict quarantine. Everything is escalating really rapidly. If you look back a week ago, there just was not the information available that would have impelled us to cancel.

Q: Whose decision was it to make?

A: It was clearly mine, as well as the elected leadership of the organization and our president [Philip Bucksbaum] and our treasurer [James Hollenhorst]. The senior management team and I talked it out, and by the end of Saturday, it was a unanimous decision. And we knew we had to act very quickly. We’re inconveniencing so many of our members, I just feel sick about that—especially how it’s affecting a lot of our students and young people. But it was the right decision to make, no question.

Q: Have you gotten any blowback about this?

A: On social media, you can find a whole range of reactions. And yes, I think some people are deeply disappointed because our community, especially our program committee, puts a lot of work into creating a fabulous program. Some people channel their disappointment into anger. That’s just the way it is.

Our biggest frustration is that we made the decision so late. We actually reached out to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that Saturday afternoon, and they said, “Yes, an epidemiologist will get back to you.” They didn’t get back until [Tuesday] morning. And that message from the epidemiologist was that “No, there’s no way to have procedures in place at major airports to screen people coming from South Korea or Italy.”

Q: Do you know when you’ll make a call on whether the April Meeting will go forward?

A: As you can imagine, we have been really busy dealing with March Meeting issues. We hope that by the end of the week, we can start looking at the April Meeting, getting our program committee leadership together and discussing what we can do.

One thing that I’ve been really excited about was seeing the March Meeting community taking the initiative to do a lot of things in the form of webinars or video conferencing. We’re looking into fully supporting that because I think this is a time when an organization like ours needs to be nimble and very supportive of its community.

Q: I have to admire your decisiveness. It could not have been an easy decision.

A: It was not, but all we had to think about was 10,000 people coming together and interacting not just in the meeting halls, but in receptions, alumni events, the hallways. If a couple of people came down with the virus, you can imagine suddenly quarantine coming in for the whole conference of 10,000 people, right? I mean, it’s the Diamond Princess all over again. [That cruise ship was quarantined at a dock in Japan for most of February with 3711 passengers aboard.] All you had to do was think through that one, and it became pretty clear that we needed to be proactive.