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RSA: What it’s like to attend the first tech conference after the coronavirus epidemic

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San Francisco is the site of the RSA 2020 conference, which took place despite cancellations from IBM, Verizon and AT&T.

As San Francisco declared a state of emergency and the federal government warned Americans that novel coronavirus (COVID-19) will spread within the US, RSA 2020 still soldiered on at the Moscone Center. 

San Francisco Mayor London Breed made an emergency declaration Tuesday to strengthen the city’s response to the virus.

“Although there are still zero confirmed cases in San Francisco residents, the global picture is changing rapidly, and we need to step-up preparedness,” Breed said in a statement. “We see the virus spreading in new parts of the world every day, and we are taking the necessary steps to protect San Franciscans from harm.”

SEE: Coronavirus having major effect on tech industry beyond supply chain delays (free PDF) (TechRepublic)   

The global death toll from the COVID-19 illness is over 2,700, and more than 80,000 cases have been diagnosed worldwide, on every continent except Antarctica. 

Joan Pepin, CISO and vice president of operations at Auth0, said that she gave her employees the option to go home today after hearing the news from the San Francisco mayor.

“Conditions have changed since we got here and we will be having discussions at the corporate level starting today,” she said, adding that there was some debate about the mayor’s decision.

Auth0 builds identity management solutions for corporate customers and more than 60% of employees work remotely in 30 states and 40 countries.

SEE: Telecommuting policy (TechRepublic Premium)

On the first day of the security event, organizers sent a message through the conference app, encouraging attendees to knock elbows instead of shake hands. Attendees seemed to be sticking with the traditional greeting, even after this warning. They were packed into standing-room-only sessions throughout the conference center, which was unexpected after AT&T, Verizon and IBM bailed on the conference in the days before the event began on February 24, citing concerns about the coronavirus. RSA runs through February 28.

A security official with the conference said that he uses the alternative elbow bump greeting exclusively to avoid catching the seasonal flu or any other virus going around. He also said that there are always plenty of Purel hand sanitizer stations at RSA events, but that they don’t usually need refilling. That was not the case at this year’s event, as conference attendees and vendors were quickly using up the hand sanitizer as they focused on personal hygiene as much as security hygiene.

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Image: Veronica Combs/TechRepublic

On Wednesday morning, new signs popped up with a list of tips: clean your hands with soap and water, don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth; if you feel ill, go to our First Aid Office. During the day, Moscone Center employees wiped down door handles frequently with sanitizers.

Michael Sentonas, the CTO of CrowdStrike, said that he had never heard of Purel before this trip to San Francisco from his home base of Sydney, Australia.

“I tried to buy some when I got here, but it was sold out everywhere I tried,” he said, adding that the illness was not a factor in CrowdStrike’s travel plans.

Casimir Wierzynski, senior director of the AI products group at Intel, and Liz Wu, artificial intelligence PR at Intel, said they didn’t have any concerns about attending.

“The only way I wouldn’t be here is if Liz told me not to come,” he said.

Wu said that attendance at RSA does not violate any of Intel’s current travel or event restrictions.

Millicom CISO John Masserini, and Matt Petrosky, vice president of customer experience at GreatHorn, both said the illness didn’t affect their decisions to attend RSA 2020.

“In fact, I am disappointed in the vendors who pulled out,” Masserini said.

Dan Lowden, the chief marketing officer of White Ops, said that a few big vendors pulling out of the show didn’t affect the majority of attendees.

“The show floor is packed, I think people are realizing that they need to stay in the forefront of innovation,” he said.

RSAC has not released attendance numbers for the conference yet, although the keynote room was full yesterday and there was a dull roar and lots of foot traffic on the show floor Tuesday.

Many people said that their companies gave them the option to stay home, including Darren Thomas, a senior product manager at McAfee, and Carol Geyer, chief development officer at OASIS, a non-profit standards group focused on open source.

SEE: Managing remote workers: A business leader’s guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Russ Mohr from Mobile Iron said his biggest concern was that the conference would get cancelled. “Verizon and AT&T are big partners of ours, so we were worried when they pulled out,” he said

Most conference attendees based in the US said the low risk of contracting the virus was worth the benefit of attending. People based in Europe had a different risk calculation.
 
David Garfield, CEO and co-founder of Garrison, said that his UK-based company has a daily update on the spread of the virus. “We have many colleagues in Singapore and many of them are confined to their apartments,” he said.

Overall, except for the abundance of hand sanitizer stations, the conference didn’t feel much different than any other tech conference. There were plenty of people in attendance, there were only a few face masks spotted, and traveling through San Francisco International Airport was just as annoying as ever, but there were no obvious delays due to the coronavirus.

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A storefront in San Francisco advertises N95 masks to protect from coronavirus exposure.

Image: Veronica Combs/TechRepublic

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