Swiss anti-viral ban on large events hits Geneva car show head-on

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland on Friday banned large events expected to draw more than 1,000 people in a drive to curb the new coronavirus epidemic, prompting cancellation of the Geneva car show and grumbling from businesses watching demand vanish.

The move aimed to avoid throngs in confined places like concert halls, sports events and carnival parades. It did not - at least for now - apply to train stations or shopping malls, where people have only fleeting contact.

Officials from the Palexpo venue forced to cancel the major 10-day car show starting next week said they understood the move but that it could cost the local economy up to 250 million Swiss francs ($256 million) in lost business.

“The economic impact for the city and region is tremendous,” said Lars Wagner, general manager of the luxury Hotel Beau-Rivage Genève.

“Not only does this impact hotels, but also auxiliary revenues such as hotel restaurant bookings, cocktail and catering events, and other revenues.”

As cancellations from guests started rolling in, another Geneva hotelier called the situation “a nightmare”.

The Swiss government declared a “special situation” under the country’s Epidemics Act, enabling it to order measures that are normally the responsibility of the regional cantons.

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“Large-scale events involving more than 1,000 people are to be banned. The ban comes into immediate effect and will apply at least until 15 March,” the cabinet said.

Dozens of trade fairs and industry conferences around the world have been postponed or canceled due to travel curbs and concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

The annual Engadin ski marathon in eastern Switzerland, one of the world’s largest cross-country skiing events with around 14,000 participants, had already been scrapped because of concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.

The Swiss soccer league called off weekend matches, while ice hockey teams were set to play before empty grandstands.

Trade fair organizer MCH Group MCHN.S pulled the plug on the Baselworld watch fair and garden shows, sending its shares down more than 10%.

Countries on three continents reported their first cases of the coronavirus on Friday as the world prepared for a pandemic.

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The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Switzerland has risen to 15, and more than 100 people are in quarantine, government minister Alain Berset said.

“We have the situation under control, but this can change very quickly,” he told a news conference in Bern, adding the ban would certainly hit the Swiss economy.

The blue-chip Swiss Market Index .SSMI fell 4.5% in late trading amid a rout in financial markets over fears the virus's spread could trigger a global recession.

Additional reporting by Maya Nikolaeva and Gilles Guillaume in Paris, Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi in Zurich, Ed Taylor in Frankfurt, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Joern Poltz in Munich; Editing by Giles Elgood