WWDC on or off? Santa Clara County bans mass gatherings, piling on pressure

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Apple faces tough decisions about a potential March product event and WWDC 2020 as COVID-19 virus spreads.
COVID-19 could force Apple to cancel WWDC.
Photo: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

The chances of Apple having to cancel — or drastically change the format of — its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) have ramped up significantly, with Santa Clara County banning all mass gatherings.

Both Apple’s Cupertino campus and the WWDC venue in San Jose fall within those county limits. The ban, announced Monday night, is currently planned to last for only three weeks. However if the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus continues it’s highly possible that gets extended.

The Public Health Department’s mandatory order will take effect at 12am on March 11, 2020. It will remain in place as more widespread testing is introduced and made available.

“This is a critical moment in the growing outbreak of COVID-19 in Santa Clara County,” said Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County Health Officer in a statement issued March 9. “The strong measures we are taking today are designed to slow the spread of disease. Today’s order and new recommendations will reduce the number of people who develop severe illness and will help prevent our healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed. This is critically important for anyone with healthcare needs, not just those most vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19.”

A WWDC mass gathering

WWDC would certainly count as a mass gathering. More than 6,000 attendees from 77 countries attended the conference in San Jose last year. It’s a chance for Apple developers from all over the world to get together, and hear updates and attend classes relating to new Apple software and hardware. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of event that is being canceled right now.

So far, there have been approximately 113,542 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide. The current number of worldwide deaths is 3,978. Most of these have been in China, but cases have been reported in many other countries as well. In the U.S., there have so far been 675 confirmed cases with 26 deaths.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has given permission for Apple employees to work from home where possible. Apple confirmed Tuesday that an employee at its Cork, Ireland campus has contracted COVID-19.

Apple’s plans going forward

If Apple does cancel WWDC, it will be the first time in the conference’s history that it has been canceled. WWDC started in 1983, although it wasn’t until 2002 that it took on its current prominence in the Apple calendar.

In previous years, Apple has announced details for WWDC as late as mid-April. If Santa Clara’s mass gathering deadline doesn’t get extended much beyond March, it is possible that Apple will, by then, have a better idea of how to proceed with WWDC. Because of the need to get new builds of macOS, iOS, iPadOS, tvOS and watchOS operating systems to developers, it would be difficult to simply push back WWDC without ramifications later in 2020.

The Public Health Department’s mandatory order could also impact a rumored March keynote for Apple. Apple’s keynotes attract a smaller audience than WWDC, with attendees only visiting for the single event rather than for a week of activities.

Apple could potentially still hold a March keynote by going virtual rather than having an in-person event. But with rumors mounting about delays for upcoming devices such as the iPhone SE, Apple might be glad to just pull the plug on a planned March live event.