All Bay Area EA events will be postponed until further notice

by Linch3 min read6th Mar 20209 comments

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Note: I’m not a qualified (or unqualified) expert. Also, I’m optimizing to get a clear document out early so I did not do normal pre-publication things (eg, I did not ask other organizers or co-organizers to review this before publication). Finally, this was written quickly so it’s less published and likely to contain mistakes. All mistakes are my own.

All SF Bay Area EA organizers have decided to cancel/postpone medium and large-sized in-person meetups until further notice, primarily due to risk of COVID-19.

This decision was made independently of CEA’s decision to not hold EA Global SF this month, though that helped in making our decision overdetermined.

Why am I posting about this (local) decision on the EA Forum?

  • I want to reduce duplicate work from other EA organizers. Some of the considerations we thought about may be applicable to you as well.
  • By creating common knowledge around our decision, I hope to create a fire alarm for other EA local group organizers to make their own informed decisions on this issue.
  • To get people to check my work/thinking processes and help clear up my own confusions.
  • So Bay Area folks who aren’t on social media can be aware of this decision sooner rather than later.

How did we decide to cancel events?

I cannot speak for other organizers, however here’s my reasoning:

1. I did a toy mathematical model[1] of when to cancel medium-sized EA events due to COVID-19. The tipping point (with high uncertainty) is at approximately several thousand infected in the Bay.

2. It’s not obvious that we’re currently at this point, but it’s not obvious that we’re *not* at this point either. Given current information, the tipping point might realistically be 4 doublings away, or it could already have happened a week ago.

3. Out of a preponderance of caution, it’s better to bias towards a “cancel events and wait and see” attitude over a “business as usual plus wait and see” attitude, since cancelling things two weeks earlier doesn’t seem unduly costly.

4. This view is shared by other organizers; all organizers were either pro-cancellation or neutral. (I freely admit that there might have been some groupthink in this decision)

5. While social media has some experts (epidemiologists, public health people and the like) downplaying the role of this virus, all the experts I *personally* know are unanimous in saying that it’s right to be highly concerned about this disease.

6. Social proof of other relevant decision-makers: 1) EA Global was cancelled. 2) When Japan had half as many confirmed per capita cases we currently do (<300 cases in a population of ~140 million, whereas the Bay Area has 30 confirmed cases in a population of 7 million), they[2] *cancelled all public schools*. 3) Microsoft, Indeed, Twitter have told all Bay Area employees to work from home. 4) Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency.

7. I find it confusing that other relevant decision-makers (eg, CDC, local school districts) are/were not more faster-moving. This is a genuine point of uncertainty for me, but my all-things-considered view is that it’s correct to be concerned, and it’s correct that at the current (or near future) level to be sufficiently concerned to want to cancel all large public gatherings.

What does this mean for your local group?

  1. In this era of heightened risk, you should probably consider best practices for reducing infection risk to members (for example, my EA forum post here, or this document from CEA’s Community Health team).
  2. It’s relevant that the Bay Area has it worse than every other American region except Washington state, and also worse than most other developed areas of the world.
  3. Whether you should postpone or cancel your own events depends a lot on local knowledge of both the benefits of your events and the costs (specifically background rates/levels of infection).
  4. You may wish to build off of my toy mathematical model to make an informed decision about when/if your local group should postpone or cancel events.
  5. If you’re interested in making informed decisions for your local group with regard to COVID-19, please feel free to message me here, either asking questions directly or to set up a call. I’ve spent several dozen hours on this already, and am happy to share my thoughts to save you time/reduce duplicate work.

More details on our local scene:

Effective Altruism: San Francisco will not be having physical events until further notice. We’re experimenting with online events.

South Bay Effective Altruism will no longer have large in-person meetups and may wish to experiment with much smaller events.
Stanford EA will no longer have large in-person events, and may wish to experiment with much smaller events.

REACH is closed until further notice. Only exception will be if people want to use it as a physical coordination point for distributing/collecting supplies.
SF LessWrong is likely cancelling until further notice.

We are still agnostic about what this means for smaller meetups, 1:1s, etc, as well as how to continue and expand having valuable EA conversations in the absence of physical meetups (one option I’m piloting is testing videocall based meetups). We’ll experiment more with different options in the coming weeks and months, and/or return to normalcy if this turned out to be a false alarm after all.

Other notes

I understand that this might be a personally stressful time for many people reading this. If you’re personally worried, people in Bay Area group houses have made this document on pandemic preparedness[4]. If you’re concerned about your family or community, the 2019 Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Fellow has a document on communicating to at-risk friends and family[5]. And if you’re concerned about the world, I have a question on the EA forum asking for good EA projects for helping with Covid-19 that I’d be excited to see your input on[6].

Stay safe!

cross-posted on Facebook.

[1] https://docs.google.com/document/d/1A0jcxj4n0BvNt_jMunHT5WSsAKFzuVJJyaaqcK9Z1HU/edit#

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/world/asia/japan-schools-coronavirus.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/05/world/coronavirus-news.html

[4] https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Rn6WrTat0Cb6gfatWv-TcSBToh3t00f_pm5XwC0BiGo/edit

[5] https://docs.google.com/document/d/1vumYWoiV7NlVoc27rMQvmVkVu5cOAbnaW_RKkq2RMaQ/edit

[6] https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/ncS4tHeHPxtwhL3JA/are-there-good-ea-projects-for-helping-with-covid-19

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Update: Since writing this document on Wednesday, two Bay Area counties (San Mateo and Santa Clara) have now recommended that people cancel all "non-essential" public events:

https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/03/06/coronavirus-san-mateo-county-recommends-cancelling-events/

This has made me more confident since I wrote the document earlier that I actually made the right call. Point #7 ("I find it confusing that other relevant decision-makers (eg, CDC, local school districts) are/were not more faster-moving") was a more significant source of concern earlier, but now it just seems like the public health authorities are a few days behind.

Unfortunately, San Francisco Public health is still recommending that event organizers not cancel: https://www.sfcdcp.org/infectious-diseases-a-to-z/coronavirus-2019-novel-coronavirus/#1582673184518-ca8c8be8-14b9

San Francisco Department of Public Health is not generally recommending the rescheduling of public events in San Francisco. However, those that involve vulnerable populations should be carefully reconsidered at this time. We advise all event planners to review CDC recommendations on mass gatherings released on March 2, 2020. If you are sick, you should stay home and not attend.

Thanks for making your model explicit. See my comment here. Basically, the crux is that if there is going to be global spread, it could be that the final mortality is independent of short-term actions. It would be great for an epidemiologist to weigh in.

I agree. I think there's a reasonable shot that short-term action will have substantial effect on final mortality, because one of the following may happen:

1. The disease mutates to much less virulent strain (like H1N1/09 did) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandemic_H1N1/09_virus
2.
So many people get it that we develop herd immunity.

3. We can flatten the disease spread curve enough that the peak hospital usage is less bad.
4. The disease mysteriously dies in the summer like every other flu or coronavirus.
5. Vaccines or good protocols are developed.
6. This gets under control due to a concerted public health efforts (as appears to have happened in China)

1. Good point
2. Without sustained protective measures, we only get herd immunity after a certain number get infected, roughly 50% for R0 = 2. So I don't think short-term measures alone (e.g. earlier travel or event banning) would impact this.
3. Again, you need sustained efforts, not just a difference in short-term effort to flatten the curve.
4. Good point
5. Without 4, it appears that the outbreak would have already peaked by the time we develop, test, and scale up a vaccine
6. This is possible, but most think other countries will not take as extreme measures

So overall, this does give significant probability that short-term actions could have high impact, so they do look worth doing.

How short-term is short-term? I can imagine a world where we don't do in-person EA meetups for a year, for example (and also if things look bad, I might self-isolate for multiple months). Also it looks like very serious efforts do decrease the doubling time a lot: https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus#what-we-do-know-the-doubling-time-of-known-cases

I was thinking of short term as weeks, e.g. canceling events in March instead of waiting until April to cancel events from then on.

I can't imagine having local events (or CEA hosting EA Global in SF) in April unless the curve seriously flattens or this turns out to be a false alarm.

Edited for clarity.

The most interesting part of your post, to me, is your risk model [1]. I would be curious to hear some more feedback from other people on it.

I turned it into a Guesstimate, making some adjustments to some of the numbers and using population figures from Austria [2].

[1] https://docs.google.com/document/d/1A0jcxj4n0BvNt_jMunHT5WSsAKFzuVJJyaaqcK9Z1HU/edit#

[2] https://www.getguesstimate.com/models/15367