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Attending a Massive Trade Show During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The gravity of the situation hit me all at once. I had just walked from the Elara Hotel to the monorail station that would take me to the Las Vegas Convention Center. I had flown into Vegas two days earlier to attend the CONEXPO-CON/AGG trade show. Now, I was finding myself packed in the station with hundreds of other attendees, waiting for the next train.

Pumping into my ears was news about a rash of new cases of coronavirus popping up across the country—along with recommendations from the CDC, foremost among them, avoid large crowds. I instinctively pulled my elbows in tighter, unconsciously disregarding the utter futility of any attempt at “social distancing” in a crowded rail station.

The trade show was expected to draw 140,000 people from the construction industry. A couple of days earlier, news of the cancelation of South by Southwest was announced. I imagine I wasn’t the only one standing in that crowded station wondering if CONEXPO-CON/AGG would be called off at some point too. It wasn’t like the crisis came out of nowhere; we’d been hearing about it for a couple of weeks. My girlfriend had sent me to the airport with plastic bags full of disinfectant wipes. But suddenly everything seemed more dire.

As the line to the monorail suggested it would be, the Convention Center and its environs were full of people, mostly men, mostly of the sort you wouldn’t expect to pay much heed to news of elevated risks. “If we’re all going to die anyway, at least we’re spending our last days in Vegas,” someone joked. Gallows humor of this sort was everywhere. Attitudes ranged from dismissive (most common) to wary to paranoid (me and a few others). Still, no matter how nonchalant we all tried to be, every cough or sneeze produced sideways glances and a momentary hush.

Why are we all here? I kept wondering. Well, when I looked around, the answer wasn’t hard to find. There were giant earthmovers, cranes visible from miles away, even what looked like a fully operational cement factory. This trade show must have cost some of the attendees millions. And they would only have made that kind of investment if they had good reason to think the payoff would justify it.

So, here in microcosm was the dilemma we face as a society—even as a global community. Shutting everything down will cost us big time. If the economy suffers enough damage, the crisis will even come with its own death count. But if we don’t shut everything down, the pandemic will take its course. Worst-case estimates are getting north of one and half million dead.

I walked the convention center and the grounds surrounding it for two days, looking for our cameras on vehicles, checking out booths and talking to people in the industry about cameras, self-driving vehicles, best practices for booth design and trade show participation—and coronavirus, coronavirus, coronavirus. Even a writer and marketing guy like myself could see how rife this event was with business opportunity. There were the prospective one-off contracts. Then there were the prospective ongoing partnerships that could significantly boost a company’s financial outlook years into the future. You couldn’t help being excited.

Then somebody would cough.

I was only scheduled to stay in Vegas through Wednesday, but I heard from my colleagues while I was at the airport on Thursday that the trade show was being shut down three days early.

I also heard that my coworkers back home had requested that all of us who had traveled to Vegas stay away from the office for at least a week. Those flights from Vegas to O’Hare in Chicago and then back from Chicago to Fort Wayne were some of the scariest in my life. (Thank you to the Indonesian man on the flight to Fort Wayne who was using disinfectant wipes on the window and armrests as I found my seat next to him.)

I’ve been back in Fort Wayne now for a week. I haven’t had any symptoms, though like everyone else, I have a few moments of panic every time my nose runs or I have a tickle in my throat. My week of working from home has recently been extended to two. And I can’t help compulsively checking my news feeds and social media pages.

Meanwhile, truckers are still on the road, as shipping demand has gone up 18% to fulfill supply chain shortages. California, Illinois, and Michigan residents have been asked to stay in their homes, and it looks like guidelines are only going to keep getting stricter.

Truckers are dealing with closed rest stops, a shortage of restaurants they can enter, and longer hours. And things are looking even worse for a lot of service workers. Of course, healthcare professionals probably have it worse than anyone.

For the time being, no one knows what lessons we’ll eventually draw from the pandemic. Will trade shows look different in the future, even when there’s no known risk of contagion? Will testing be more accessible—or routine? It’s impossible to tell. For now, we’re all just staying at home if we can. And we’re all looking for opportunities, not to grow our businesses, but to help out the people who are being hit the hardest.

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