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Coronavirus crackdown: How companies like Ernst & Young are going to extremes to avoid infections

February 28, 2020, 3:52 PM UTC

Companies are growing increasingly concerned as the coronavirus spreads across the globe—and are taking new, more extreme precautionary measures to mitigate its impact on their employees.

Professional services firm Ernst & Young instituted new preventative protocols on Wednesday, this time in the U.S. as well, prohibiting employees from attending “not-client-critical” external events of more than 100 people, and also requiring employees to request to attend “client-critical” events of over 100 attendees, according to an internal email viewed by Fortune. To boot, the company, which employs 284,000 people globally, is requesting employees cancel or postpone (until April) any internal meetings of more than 25 people (from different offices), instead requesting employees conduct meetings via video or other remote meeting channels. Ernst & Young told Fortune that while these details stand as guidelines, the company is asking employees to check with their risk managers regarding particular meetings or events of larger size.

For some employees like Chris Petryk, an attorney working on a contract for EY based in Secaucus, New Jersey, the email came as a surprise. “My eyes and ears perked up,” he recounts to Fortune. Petryk has been following the virus closely since the outbreak began, but was taken aback at the severity of the precautions.

“That an email like that is going out to all American employees of a company that size as severe and serious as [the email] was [was surprising],” Petryk says. “I think people [are] more concerned about [cancelling meetings and travel] than the actual virus.”

In addition to new meeting and event protocols, EY expanded its travel ban on outward and inward travel until April 1 to or from South Korea, Japan, and areas in Northern Italy. According to the email, employees who have traveled in the aforementioned areas (plus China, Hong Kong, and Macau indefinitely) are being instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days, at least until April 1. Ernst & Young told Fortune in a statement that “The safety and wellbeing of all EY people, clients and communities remains our primary concern,” and that EY is “monitoring this situation closely and will be updating guidance as developments warrant” in accordance with local government and WHO guidelines.

Apart from EY’s new intensive measures, Nestle SA and L’Oreal SA both instructed employees to avoid traveling for business altogether until mid-to-late March.

At Amazon, the company confirmed to Fortune that additional precautions are being put in place, including employees being asked to self-quarantine and work from home if they are or have been traveling in areas in Asia and, now, parts of Europe. An Amazon spokesperson told Fortune that the company is continuing to provide “precautionary advice to our employees in line with health and safety guidelines provided by the WHO and regional health authorities like the CDC.”

Still, others like IBM are operating on a more country-specific basis, as the company told Fortune that it is “complying with local governmental regulations concerning travel, having our employees work from home where recommended and deciding on our participation in large meetings and trade shows on an individual basis.” IBM has also restricted travel to and from China and Milan, Italy, and is en masse encouraging employees in China, Japan, South Korea and northern regions of Italy to work from home, in accordance with local authorities in those regions.

Coca-Cola Co. and Kraft Heinz Co. are limiting employee travel from affected countries as well, and others like German power company RWE AG are also cancelling large, nonessential external or internal events.

A hard hit?

In terms of impact, those like Jamie Cox, managing partner at Harris Financial, are more concerned about the ripple effect of additional corporate travel bans.

“[For] the individual companies who are adjusting their travel schedules for their employees, … it is not a big deal, but the airlines, the hotels … This is a really big deal for the travel and hospitality space,” Cox tells Fortune.

That space has been hit hard in recent weeks, as airlines like United Airlines have suspended 2020 guidance, with its stock trading down around 18% for the week. To wit, hotel company Marriott International announced Thursday that the company anticipates a roughly $25 million hit to its monthly fee revenue due to coronavirus impact.

But for investors watching companies’ growing concerns, Cox notes: “To the extent that companies are making these decisions, … I think those serve to do nothing more than put at bay the risks of a conflagration of [risks tied to coronavirus spreading].”

UBS Wealth Management’s Michael Crook, head of Americas investment strategy, sees a risk in continued restrictions. While he doesn’t think the majority of companies dealing with internal travel or quarantine restrictions will feel too much impact, uncertainty is still the key factor. “The longer that these restrictions and lack of willingness to travel persists, the bigger impact we’ll see,” Crook tells Fortune. “Not only industries that are in the travel industry, but supply chain problems. There are a lot of follow-on effects there.”

Concern mounts as virus spreads

Corporate concerns are seemingly only increasing as new cases surface, including a confirmed case in the U.S. that popped up in California on Wednesday night, which possibly might be the first case of “community-spread” coronavirus, or an infection that was not directly tied to travels in China or contact with those who had.

President Trump said during a press conference Wednesday that it was “not the right time” to institute more restrictions on entry to the country, but that “we may do that.”

So far, the virus has reportedly infected over 82,000 people worldwide.

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