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Companies and attendees drop out of CES over omicron concerns

The large in-person tech conference is in limbo over coronavirus worries

Attendees head to the trade show floor as it opens at the Las Vegas Convention Center during the 2020 CES in Las Vegas in January 2020. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

Just two weeks before it is set to open its doors to tens of thousands of people at the massive Las Vegas Convention Center, one of the largest technology trade shows is in limbo.

CES is struggling with a growing number of dropouts of worried exhibitors, attendees and media as omicron cases are on the rise. On Tuesday, companies including Facebook parent company Meta, Amazon, T-Mobile, AT&T and Twitter pulled out, along with most major tech-focused publications including CNET, the Verge and TechCrunch.

The conference is still scheduled to take place Jan. 5 through 8. CES organizers said they were comfortable holding it in person due to its health measures, lower attendance and vaccination requirements. But for now, it is unclear whether the show will actually go on this year.

“To be frank, I would be very surprised if they don’t end up canceling it,” said Sabrina McCormick, associate professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. “We don’t really have safety protocols developed for omicron, so my go to would be a measles protocol. But even with that in place, there will be opportunities for transmission. I think it’s almost impossible to avoid."

Biden, states and other nations brace for rush of omicron infections

The show went fully remote last January in the thick of the winter coronavirus surge, but is typically a sprawling in-person networking event featuring everything from cuddly robots to self-driving cars. Hosted by the Consumer Technology Association, CES (formerly the Consumer Electronics Show) attracted more than 170,000 attendees the year before the pandemic. In January 2020, it spread across 2.9 million square feet of exhibit space and had 4,419 exhibitors.

According to the CTA, more than 2,100 exhibitors were lined up for 2022. Meta, Google’s Waymo, AT&T and Samsung were among some of its biggest names, but the show has also become a place where smaller companies and start-ups try to wrangle a few moments under the spotlight.

All of those company employees — along with the media that cover them — are required to be vaccinated. And all attendees of the nearly entirely indoors conference must wear masks on the show floor.

“What I in a sense worry about is not the physical facilities of CES,” said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the CTA in an interview before the first wave of withdrawals. “As one of our board members said, he feels safer going to CES than he does going to his grocery store, because everyone is vaccinated at CES.”

The highly contagious omicron variant changed plans quickly. It accounted for 73 percent of new coronavirus cases in the United States between Dec. 12 and 18, according to modeled projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CES 2021 is still happening — without Vegas, crowds, prototypes or germs

“Out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees, we won’t be attending CES in person due to the evolving public health concerns related to covid-19,” said Meta spokesperson Kamran Mumtaz. The company plans to still participate virtually.

Amazon said late Tuesday it was pulling out of the in-person event. “The health and safety of our employees is our top priority. Due to the quickly shifting situation and uncertainty around the omicron variant, we will no longer have an on-site presence at CES,” said spokesperson Sarah Sobolewski.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

T-Mobile also announced it was no longer attending on Tuesday, saying in a blog post: “While we are confident that CES organizers are taking exhaustive measures to protect in-person attendees and we had many preventative practices in place as well, we are prioritizing the safety of our team and other attendees with this decision.”

Other CES mainstays are sticking with the wait-and-see approach. Samsung, which regularly reveals new televisions, laptops, phones and robots at the show, is monitoring the situation and may reduce the number of employees it sends. Its rival LG plans to maintain its presence at CES, as does Microsoft, which still stage its “show floor showcase” with limited staff on-site.

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