UPDATE: Emerald City Comic Con has been moved to summer 2020.
By Liz Szabo / Kaiser Health News
Nearly 100,000 pop culture fans flocked to Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle last year, including many dressed as superheroes, aliens and robots. But something scarier than a comic book villain is roiling the conference this year — the spread of the coronavirus.
Ten people have died from novel coronavirus in King County, according to the Washington State Department of Health. At least 70 people have tested positive statewide.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, criticized the decision to go forward with the event, set to begin March 12.
“Meanwhile Comic Con will bring together 100,000 people in Seattle in a week,” Gottlieb tweeted Thursday. “Into an area of America’s only known, potential larger outbreak.”
Mathematical disease models suggest that the coronavirus “could be far more pervasive in Seattle area,” Gottlieb tweeted. “With hundreds or maybe low thousands of undetected cases.”
The Seattle area is “on the cusp of intense community spread,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
An event the size of Comic Con “might create a surge of cases,” Adalja said. “These are often difficult decisions, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer.”
While viruses can spread at crowded outdoor gatherings, Adalja said, they tend to infect even more people at indoor events such as Comic Con at the convention center in downtown Seattle.
The event’s organizers have offered refunds to anyone afraid to attend. Tickets for the four-day event cost up to $52 a day, with sold-out “premium” packages running $349.
Reedpop, the company that organizes the convention, said it will employ “enhanced cleaning guidelines, precautions and procedures.” On its website, organizers acknowledged that their decision is controversial: “We recognize that not everyone will agree with our decision: it is our feeling that this community values coming together and building connections, even in difficult times.”
At least two major publishers that had planned to attend the convention ― DC, which includes DC Comics, and Dark Horse Comics ― announced they were pulling out.
“It is with the safety and well-being of our staff and creators in mind that we have come to this decision,” Dark Horse Comics tweeted Monday.
Seattle has legal authority to cancel conventions during a public health emergency, said Dr. Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.
But canceling big conferences has “large economic implications,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Meetings and conferences generate $330 billion a year in the United States, according to Meetings and Conventions, a website for event planners.
“I do not think it is necessary to cancel events in low-risk cities, but in a city undergoing an active outbreak, it is irresponsible,” Gostin said. “Business must not trump health and welfare.”
Other groups are taking a more cautious approach.