It doesn’t really do anyone any favors to dwell on theoretical situations, but it’s probably a really good thing that the auto show in Detroit was changed from its traditional January date to a June event. If the North American International Auto Show had been held in January, it may have sparked an earlier and wider spread of Covid-19 both here in the U.S. and abroad.
Let’s cast our minds back to mid-January. The coronavirus had not yet come to our shores. There was discussion of some events potentially being cancelled inside the borders of China, but even that hadn’t happened yet. Hell, even the lockdowns in Hubei province hadn’t happened yet. It was largely business as usual all over the world.
If the NAIAS had been held in its traditional mid-January slot, it could have been a massive factor in spreading the disease, according to this report from the Detroit Free Press. Detroit could have easily been the epicenter of international spread, and we could be even worse off than we are right now. With journalists and automakers convening in Detroit from all over the world, in addition to hundreds of thousands of ticketed attendees, any number of them could have brought it into the show and then carried it back to their homes through DTW.
Nobody in the automotive industry really took this viral threat seriously until the cancellation of the Geneva auto show in early March. Back in January, cancelling a major international auto show was as far from anyone’s mind as it ever has been.
“It could’ve been a catastrophe,” said Dr. Peter Gulick, an infectious disease specialist at Michigan State University. “It was an environment for disaster. Detroit could’ve been the epicenter of COVID-19 for the whole country.”
In fairness, Doctor, it’s already a catastrophe. The United States already has over 350,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and over 10,000 Americans have died. Detroit was already hit heavily as it stands, with Michigan showing over 16,000 cases and 617 deaths as of this writing.
“Detroit could’ve been the second main hot spot behind Wuhan,” Gulick continued. “There would’ve been people from all over the world packed in together before the gravity of the disease was understood. It would’ve caught us even more unprepared because no research or testing had taken place yet.”
Would an earlier and faster spread in the U.S. have forced our government to act quicker, or would the response have remained the same of even worse result?
Wuhan is one of China’s largest centers of automotive industry, and NAIAS draws hundreds of people from China every year. As anyone who has been to an auto show knows, social distance isn’t exactly a thing at big events like this. It seems like every year I attend Detroit or Chicago or similar conventions like SEMA, I come home with some disgusting disease. Pack people in like sardines in a can, and a virus can spread through the population like wildfire.
We saw a massive spread of the virus, which can act as a case study, from the 1.4 million people drawn to Mardi Gras in mid-February. The U.S. didn’t get its first case until January 21. If we’d potentially had a few hundred in mid-January, we’d be in a much worse position than we are right now.
By moving the Detroit show to June, we may well have dodged an early bullet. We aren’t done dodging bullets, and we’ve been hit by quite a few of them, but who knows how much worse it could be.
More from Detroit Free Press:
Visiting auto execs, engineers and journalists fill every hotel and restaurant in metro Detroit the week before the show opens to the public. The whole state, and potentially the global auto industry, could have been ravaged.
I could easily have come in contact with a dozen CEOs of global automakers and suppliers during media days. You lose count of executives a rung or two below. Following media days, 30,000 engineers take over, clambering over every new vehicle.
The annual Friday Charity Preview attracts about 13,000 auto industry figures, celebrities, national and local politicians and glitterati for three hours of cheek-kissing and back-slapping, followed by dinner and drinks.
And that’s all before the show would have opened to the public, when more than 100,000 people often pass through TCF’s doors in a day.
It’s already bad, but maybe not as bad as it could have been. Yet.