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Closures mount, concern grows as coronavirus arrives in Delaware

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COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, has upended the nation’s economy and stoked concerns about large gatherings, leading to historic precautionary limitations. PHOTO COURTESY OF CDC

With Delaware confirming its first positive coronavirus cases, the state has been swept into the nation’s wave of concern regarding large public gatherings, which carry a higher risk for transmission of the virus. Those concerns may leave lasting economic ramifications.

The virus known as COVID-19, which has no vaccine, has infected more than 125,000 people worldwide in 111 countries, causing more than 4,700 deaths as of March 12. Of those, more than 1,200 people have been infected in the U.S. with 37 deaths, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Former Vice President Joe Biden returned to his Wilmington home to issue his plan on how to address the health crisis.He called for increased testing of the virus known as COVID-19, preparation of federal resources in response and fast-tracking of a vaccine. Above all though, Biden called for leadership from the White House and policy “led by science.”

Earlier in March, the CDC advised citizens to “avoid crowds as much as possible” as a way to reduce their risk of contracting coronavirus disease. That has led to the cancellation of large events, such as the South by Southwest Festival in Texas, as well as postponements, like the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California. Over March 12 and 13, virtually all major sports leagues suspended their seasons amid the concern.

That wave of concern began to break in Delaware on March 12, when the state announced that a University of Delaware faculty member was the first resident to have contracted the virus. A day later, the state confirmed three more cases, including two UD graduate students and a postdoctoral researcher who had been in close contact with the faculty member at an off-campus February social event. All are reported to not be severely ill and under quarantine, according to state and university officials. On March 13, Gov. John Carney issued a state of emergency in reaction to the virus, allowing the National Guard to be deployed in aid and limiting public gatherings to 100 people or fewer.

“We’ve been expecting and planning for this for weeks, and we’re ready,” said Carney in announcing the first positive case. “We’re taking this extremely seriously because it’s a serious matter, but we are not panicking, and neither should you.”

For the state’s tourism- and service-reliant businesses and event organizers, the growing public worry over coronavirus may leave the most long-lasting economic impacts. The largest cancellation to date was the 45th Annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Wilmington, but other smaller gatherings are expressing the same concerns and there are likely to be many more by the time you read this story.

Sarah Willoughby, executive director of the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau, told Delaware Business Times that she’s heard from several event organizers who are seeking to reschedule upcoming events in Wilmington or New Castle County.

“Hotels and customers are working together to reschedule as best as possible, with most looking for dates later in the year,” she said.

Among those event organizers that will be hurt are nonprofits that depend upon revenue fundraisers to fund their annual budgets, said Sheila Bravo, president and CEO of the Delaware Alliance of Nonprofit Advancement (DANA).

“These agencies don’t have revenue streams or significant reserves to rely upon in crisis times like this,” she explained to DBT. “There are also overriding concerns about protecting the health of staff and volunteers while serving clients, many of whom are elderly or sick and at risk of the coronavirus.”

Meanwhile, tourist attractions where large public crowds gather are seeking to do all that they can to tamp down concerns about the coronavirus, Willoughby said.

“I’ve heard from some attractions that are ramping up their sanitization efforts, cleaning door handles on the hour rather than a few times a day,” she explained. “They’re also putting wipes and hand sanitizer out all over the place.”

Although venues and attractions will surely take a revenue hit by decreasing attendance and canceled or postponed events, Willoughby said that there will be a trickle-down effect as well.

“The maintenance companies won’t have that business, the alcohol and food distributors will make fewer deliveries, etc. Everyone that supplies and serves these businesses will be hurt too,” she said.

While the long-term economic impact of the closures, cancellations and postponements remain unknown, most are expressing a heightened degree of caution in order to slow the virus’s spread.

Carney postponed a public town hall, deciding instead to host a virtual town hall online. The Delaware General Assembly is also reportedly exploring whether to postpone its legislative session, which reconvenes March 17 and runs until July 1 by law. Earlier in the month, the Court of Chancery announced efforts to hold as many hearings by phone as possible, decreasing the need of groups of people to gather in the courthouse.

Following the confirmation that a University of Delaware faculty member was tested positive for the coronavirus, the university closed March 12 and 13, starting its scheduled spring break early. When courses resume March 23, all learning will be done online for the remainder of the spring semester. While dorms will remain open to students, the university is prohibiting school-sponsored international travel and large university events, such as the UDance fundraiser.

On March 12, Delaware State University followed suit, telling students who were already on spring break to not return to campus until April 5. Coursework will also move online until at least April 3, with spring sports games being held without spectators just as UD advised.

Also in the sports world, UD has suspended its spring sports season and required the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association to play its annual semifinal and final high school basketball games before empty stands at the Bob Carpenter Center. The DIAA initially tried to reschedule the tournament’s most high-profile games before limited crowds at home or neutral high school courts, but later canceled the games.

Meanwhile, the Delaware Blue Coats, the NBA G-League affiliate of the Philadelphia 76ers, has also suspended play of its season. The Blue Coats, which typically play in front of a few thousand fans at the 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, had two more home games in its 2019-20 season.

Delaware’s private sector employers are also dealing with how to best weather the potential impact of virus that could keep infected employees at home on quarantine for 14 days.

Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, a national law firm with a Wilmington office, shuttered all offices for a day before reopening most after an attendee of a firm event in Washington, D.C., tested positive for the virus. JPMorgan Chase, which employs about 11,500 people in Delaware, has been testing its ability for its workforce to work from home if the need arises, as have other large employers in Delaware.

By Jacob Owens

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