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In a post outlining Facebook’s plans when society reopens, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Thursday that the company is canceling all events with 50 or more people through June 2021— not 2020, but 2021—because of the coronavirus pandemic. This is because, as Zuckerberg writes, “Even beyond this next period, guidance from health experts is that it won’t be advisable to have large groups of people get together for a while.” The company will be holding virtual events during this time instead.
Facebook is generally looking to slow down the timetable for bringing its 45,000 employees back to their offices in Menlo Park, California, and around the world, requiring most people to work from home at least through the end of May and allowing anyone to do so through at least the summer if they choose. The company will also stagger the reopening of its offices in waves; people who work on complex hardware and monitor sensitive content, like terrorism- and suicide-related posts, will be among the first to return since they cannot do their jobs remotely.
“We think it’s important that we give the right of way to other types of businesses and people who may not have the flexibility to work from home productively for their livelihoods,” Zuckerberg said in a CNN coronavirus town hall on Thursday. “I don’t know how long this will take for society to reopen, but I would imagine that we will be among the last back to offices in order to make sure that others can get back first.”
Big tech companies were early proponents of shutting down workplaces and canceling events. Apple, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook asked employees to work from home in the first week of March. Facebook called off the annual F8 developer conference, its biggest event, at the end of February, while Apple canceled its marquee Worldwide Developers Conference a couple weeks later. Google also cancelled its I/O conference at around the same time. Bill Detwiler, editor in chief of TechRepublic, predicts that these cancellations will accelerate the preexisting trend of making tech conferences completely virtual. Given Zuckerberg’s announcement, it now seems less likely that even next year’s F8 will take place in its usual conference-center setting.
Just as Silicon Valley ended up being prescient about the extent to which the coronavirus would shut down society in the initial outbreak, Facebook’s decision to hold off on large gatherings for more than a year may give us a glimpse at how the pandemic will continue to shape our lives as we slowly emerge from quarantine. (Facebook did not respond to an inquiry about how the June 2021 timeline was determined.) While many professions won’t be able to work at home for as long as a company that primarily deals with software can, other major tech companies at least are likely to follow Facebook’s example with similarly lengthy moratoriums for their own events, as will many other industries. Leading health authorities believe that a COVID-19 vaccine won’t be ready for another 12 to 18 months, which means that social distancing may still be the law of the land for the foreseeable future. The Trump administration also released a reopening plan on Thursday that will gradually ease lockdown restrictions in three phases, but it has not yet set target dates and warned that shutdown measures could come back if cases begin to rise again. In all likelihood, packed concerts, bustling restaurants, and large celebrations won’t be in the cards for a while.