From conferences and concerts to sporting events and summits, the list of events around the country that have been canceled due to coronavirus fears keeps growing.

On Monday evening, the City of Austin announced mass gatherings are prohibited through May 1.

Elsewhere, organizers of events that aren’t canceled are going to great lengths to advise attendees on how to protect themselves from a virus that has put millions into quarantine and gripped the world’s economy.

A recent message from Steven Wood Schmader, president and CEO of International Festivals and Events Association (IFEA), advised its members that they have two options in face of the crisis: proceed as normal while communicating preventive measures or cancel.

For those that decide to cancel, there may be some relief from contractual obligations and liability, but in most cases, there’s no insurance bailout.

That’s according to executives at San Antonio-based Kaliff Insurance, an underwriter of at least 9,000 events nationwide, including Fiesta in San Antonio and Mardi Gras in New Orleans and in Mobile, Ala.

In business for 103 years, Kaliff is the country’s oldest insurance and risk management company for the outdoor amusement industry. The founder’s grandson, Mitchell Kaliff, is president and CEO, and Bruce Smiley-Kaliff is executive vice president. In addition to events, the company underwrites carnival rides such as the Texas Star Ferris wheel ride at the Texas State Fair.

But in the last week, Kaliff Insurance has been fielding 40 to 50 calls a day, plus emails, from its insured clients trying to navigate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines regarding the COVID-19 outbreak while avoiding a potential financial calamity.

Because large events that draw mass gatherings have the potential to spread the virus, many event planners are looking for answers. Canceling can be a costly proposition not covered by insurance. In general liability policies, cancellations due to viruses have never been included, Smiley-Kaliff said.

“Claims are something that we don’t expect to be filed because this is not an insurable event [on most policies],” he said. “The only thing that is insurable is if an event cancels, and the people have cancellation insurance. Viral incidents are not covered on general liability policies.”

Those organizations that do purchase event cancellation coverage, which is typically costly, are covered only for situations such as when severe weather affects an event, and public officials mandate the event be canceled for public safety, he added. It won’t cover an outdoor event that is canceled by the organizer because of rain, for instance.

As for those policies that do cover canceled events, coronavirus became a named exclusion two weeks ago. Trying to get ahead of it won’t work either.

“Calling right now saying we want to be insured for coronavirus is like the person on the Gulf calling and saying we want rain insurance when the hurricane is in the Gulf,” he said.

Kaliff Insurance Executive Vice President Bruce Smiley-Kaliff.
Kaliff Insurance Executive Vice President Bruce Smiley-Kaliff Credit: Courtesy / Kaliff Insurance

Thus, as public officials and major event organizers across the country grapple with the choice between financial fallout from event cancellations or preventing the spread of the virus in their communities, Kaliff Insurance executives have been answering a lot of “what-if” scenarios.

“This is the kind of conversation that’s going on all over the country,” Kaliff said. “We’re getting [calls] from California, Arizona, the Midwest – anybody who has events that are happening right now – wondering and saying, ‘Look, this is out there. Are we liable if we have our event?’”

The answer to that question, he said, is that under a general liability policy, there’s no liability for negligence if the event is held. But the producer should let attendees know it is working to protect people.

“You have to be very honest about what you’re doing … publishing guidelines put out by the CDC and everybody else about washing your hands,” Kaliff said. “But it’s like airline travel, there’s a certain amount of personal responsibility involved.”

The message must be precise, however, and not worded to guarantee anyone’s safety. So the firm, in its traditionally collaborative nature, he said, has worked with clients on messaging meant to protect both event organizers and their attendees. Some of those messages go out to attendees in emails or are posted on event websites.

South By Southwest Conference and Festivals (SXSW), which is annually attended by more than 400,000 people, was canceled after Austin Mayor Steve Adler declared a local disaster on March 6. That likely allowed for festival organizers to cancel without resulting in contractual problems for both the festival’s speakers and SXSW, Smiley-Kaliff said.

As for Fiesta, Amy Shaw, executive director of the Fiesta Commission, sent a letter March 4 to participating member organizations and the commission’s executive committee stating that she is closely monitoring developments related to COVID-19, “day by day, hour by hour.”

She shared guidance from IFEA that said event organizers should be in contact with local public health and government officials as the disease progresses. The commission’s No. 1 priority is the health and safety of Fiesta guests and community, she stated, and Fiesta 2020 is going forward as planned.

David Gonzalez, director of communications at Visit San Antonio, said Monday that there have been no cancellations of upcoming large conventions or meetings booked at the convention center in San Antonio; though, three events have been rescheduled for later in the year.

“We are hearing from some of the hotels that they may have some groups that are falling off but we haven’t had any changes to the major citywide conferences yet,” Gonzalez said.

In the meantime, Smiley-Kaliff said responding to COVID-19 is keeping them busy, but it’s business as usual. The executive team is continuing to travel as needed and has contingency plans in place to work remotely if necessary.

“Our industry has been through SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome]. They’ve been through every health issue that you’ve seen. We’re in the middle of acts of violence, civil unrest. We’re in an election year, where there’s all kinds of craziness going on,” he said. “This is all in the scope of what we do.”

Does he expect it to change the way his company or the industry does business?

“No,” he said. “Do I expect it to change the way that organizers and event holders approach their coverage? I would assume that could possibly happen.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.