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“No handshakes, please”: The tech industry is terrified of the coronavirus

Although public officials in the area say the virus is contained for now, that hasn’t stopped the tech industry from worrying.

A woman wearing a breathing mask stands in a doorway at an airport.
The San Francisco International Airport has been on high alert, as many flights from China have been canceled.
Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

One of the most prestigious venture capital firms in Silicon Valley, Andreessen Horowitz, recently put up a sign on its door, cautioning eager startup founders and business partners who walk into its offices: “Due to the Coronavirus, no Handshakes please. Thank you.”

It’s unclear how long Andreessen Horowitz — an investor in the likes of Facebook, Airbnb, and Slack — has been greeting visitors with the sign. The move by the firm to put it up, however, is just one example of how some of the most powerful institutions and figures in the tech industry are taking measures to protect themselves from the deadly virus. The new coronavirus, now officially known as Covid-19, has taken the lives of more than 1,357 people so far — most of them in the Hubei Province of China, where the outbreak started.

So far, out of 13 total in the United States, four confirmed cases of coronavirus have been reported in the Northern California region, including Silicon Valley. Public health officials in the area have said there’s currently a low risk to public health; the cases, they say, have been contained to those who have recently traveled to Wuhan and their direct family members.

But in tech’s de facto capital, there’s a growing sense of anxiety about the virus quickly spreading out of control. Recode spoke with several employees at major tech companies who were glad that their companies were taking precautionary measures, such as halting employee travel to the region. Those concerned also pointed to the high rate of travel between the San Francisco Bay Area and China, the fact that people can be infected — and contagious — but show no symptoms for up to two weeks, and that government officials in China downplayed the virus’s initial impact. Some, however, said that a few of the industry restrictions — and the comments by some tech VCs on Twitter — have gone too far.

Aside from the institutional precautions major tech companies like Apple and Google are taking by restricting employee travel and halting operations in China, some tech professionals are taking individual measures to protect themselves.

“I personally wear a P100 mask on all my Ubers, CalTrains, and on MUNI,” Andre Watson, CEO of SF-based gene therapy technology startup Ligandal, told Recode.

If they’re used correctly, P95 and P100 face masks can reduce the likelihood of being exposed to coronavirus by blocking contaminated air particles. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises against people in the US using face masks because most people who aren’t trained medical professionals may not know how to fit them properly, and the risk of exposure in the US is so low to begin with.

Regardless, Watson said he thinks it’s a good idea for more people in the Bay Area to use face masks — and for a venture capital firm like Andreessen Horowitz, which takes many meetings a day with people from around the world, to institute a no-handshake rule.

“While the probability is low that any individual will have [coronavirus], the higher up you go in terms of a person’s wealth or socioeconomic status, the more likely they are to have interacted with someone who is much higher risk,” said Watson, who added that most people in the Bay Area are, to his dismay, “very relaxed right now.” Watson also said he sees an opportunity for tech companies to help diagnose the virus or come up with a vaccine — a problem he said he’s interested in solving.

In some ways, Silicon Valley elites have been preparing for this moment. Tech billionaires and other wealthy Americans have long been gearing up for Doomsday scenarios like a global pandemic that could disrupt societal stability. Some are building out elaborate refuges as far away as New Zealand.

“It’s striking because in the midst of all this wealth, there’s this kind of deep, paranoid fear about bodies and disease,” said Tim Hwang, a technology researcher and editor of essays about Silicon Valley visual culture. “I think in classic Silicon Valley fashion, they’re responding to a genuine problem, but it’s unclear these are effective solutions for the real issue.”

Covid-19, scientists believe, is primarily transmitted through droplets of bodily fluids, such as saliva or mucus, that are dispersed through the air with a cough or sneeze. The CDC says that transmission most often happens in close contact of six feet or less, although simply standing next to someone who has the virus doesn’t guarantee the infection would spread. The virus can also be transmitted by hand-to-hand contact (like a handshake), but that’s a secondary method of transmission, according to Dr. Stanley Deresinski, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care.

Right now, public health officials say there’s little known risk of anyone in Northern California encountering someone with the new coronavirus in public in the first place, since the four confirmed cases are under quarantine. Deresinski said he doesn’t think the risk is “anywhere near sufficient” to warrant reduced contact with people in the Silicon Valley area, even given their relatively high level of travel to and from China.

“The chances are astonishingly low that you would come into contact in a coronavirus infection” at work or in a public setting, Deresinki told Recode, but acknowledged that there’s “always a risk.”

A spokesperson for the Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County public health department said that reducing handshakes is recommended generally to prevent the spread of colds and flu, but not specifically for coronavirus.

A public relations firm representing Andreessen Horowitz declined to respond to Recode’s request for comment about the no-handshake sign.