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COVID-19 fears hit Vancouver International Wine Festival

Executive director fears some winery principals may cancel, even as ticket sales remain brisk
Vancouver International Wine Festival executive director Harry Hertscheg savours some wine | Chung Chow

Ticket sales are brisk for the 56 events at the Vancouver International Wine Festival (VIWF) this week but the festival’s executive director Harry Hertscheg told Business in Vancouver on February 24 that he is concerned that principals from some of the 162 wineries that are taking part in the extravaganza may decide not to travel because of the global COVID-19 coronavirus health crisis.

“Anyone who has a fever might feel this is not a good time to get on a plane,” he said. “It would have nothing to do with them having the coronavirus, but people who have fevers might think that they would be put in quarantine.”

Others, he suggested, may just be fearful of any kind of travel at this time, given that there have been more than 81.245 reported cases of COVID-19, and more than 2,770 deaths, according to John Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering.

His concern that people may want to avoid large gatherings and travel is grounded in part on how the disease is spreading. While 96% of the cases are in mainland China, significant outbreaks have recently sprouted up in South Korea, Japan and Italy. Some recent speculation focused on whether the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games could be cancelled.

The bulk of the Italian COVID-19 infections are in the country's Lombardy region, which is known mostly for sparkling wines but also for red and white table wines. To control the spread of the disease, authorities have cancelled sports matches and closed schools, universities, restaurants, and tourist attractions, such as the Duomo cathedral in Milan, the capital of Lombardy. The Lombardy-based winery Avanzi is set to be at the festival.  

In nearby Veneto, where other coronavirus cases have been detected, winemakers make everything from prized Amarone della Valpolicella to sparkling Prosecco. Veneto-based wineries at the festival are set to include Gancia, Cantine Giacomo Montresor, Masi Agricola, Mionetto, Savian Winemaker, Sorelle Bronca, Tommasi Family Estates, Villa Sandi and Zonin 1821.

Hertscheg said that the Vancouver Convention Centre has sent a memo stressing that they are stepping up cleaning and disinfection wiping at its facilities. It also is providing visitors with more hand sanitizer.

The 42nd annual VIWF launched on February 22, with its Bacchanalia gala dinner. There are dinners, seminars, luncheons, tastings and other events featuring wineries from 15 countries until March 1. More than 40 wineries set to be at the festival are in the theme region of France, where 18 cases of COVID-19 have so far been detected, as well as two related deaths.

“When you hold a global event where people have to travel long distances, things happen,” Hertscheg said with a shrug. He then recounted how a large volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010 caused air travel to be disrupted, forcing some intended festival attendees to be no-shows.

“Our rate of sales is higher than last year, and I’m not getting any concern from the ticket purchasers,” Hertscheg said. “The rate of sales is as brisk as ever.”

BIV reached National Event Management, which is presenting the Vancouver Outdoor Adventure & Travel Show at the Vancouver Convention Centre East building February 29 through March 1, and asked if coronavirus fears was affecting the show.

Organizers provided a simple, “no comment.”

Major sports teams have yet to see evidence that people fear going to arenas. The Vancouver Canucks’ most recent home game attracted a sell-out crowd of 18,871 fans, and the team has not seen an impact on sales for tickets at future games, it said in a statement to BIV.

To underscore expectations that the global travel industry is set for a slowdown, share prices for airlines and cruise lines have plummeted in recent days as investors reflect on the disease’s potential impact.

Health officials have even started changing their tune on the kinds of precautions the general public should be taking.

Instead of simply urging people to more frequently wash their hands and diligently sneeze into their sleeves instead of their hands, Canada’s chief medical officer, Theresa Tam on February 24 warned that Canada may not be able to contain and limit the spread of the disease, and that individuals should prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak.

Others officials, such as the City of Ottawa’s top health officer, Vera Etches, told media that people should stock up on non-perishable food – something liable to incite potential panic-buying and hoarding of products.

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