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When coronavirus fears threaten big gatherings, remember this

Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN (CNN)As new cases of coronavirus arise in the United States (with a handful of…

Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN

(CNN)As new cases of coronavirus arise in the United States (with a handful of deaths already recorded in Washington state), and amid a largely inept federal response, many organizations are facing a question: Can we still gather?

Leaders of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, which was set to potentially bring more than 10,000 people to San Antonio this week decided to keep the event on, spurring AWP co-director Diane Zinna to resign in protest. SXSW kicks off in 10 days, but a few big companies have pulled out.
Organizers have said the festival will go on — a message public health officials in Austin reiterated Wednesday — but another virus outbreak could change everything very quickly. Google canceled its largest annual event. More than a dozen other companies have canceled, postponed or made planned gatherings online-only.
In the midst of a global outbreak, these cancellations, postponements, and venue changes seems responsible. Companies, organizations, event planners and attendees have tough decisions to make in the coming weeks and possibly months, as they are charged with balancing the importance of in-person connection with the emergency of a potential pandemic.
When the federal government is failing so spectacularly at cultivating the trust that it will handle this growing crisis properly, the responsibility falls on private citizens and sectors to protect ourselves and each other.
But relying on companies and citizens to stop an epidemic is an awfully scary prospect.
Yet, there is much to lose by removing opportunities for in-person interaction. As magical and life-changing as the internet is, there is no true substitute for connecting with other human beings face to face. Human beings are animals, and like any animal, much of our communication is subtle — not done via the words that come out of our mouths (or via our typing fingers), but in our facial expressions, body language and the subtle signals we send and receive.
When we interact in person, we tend to mirror each other, again connecting in a subtle way that is not replicable online and fueling positive emotions. Physical touch, like that from a handshake or a hug, builds trust and warmth.
But as we know, physical touch also can spread coronavirus.
In a public health emergency like this, it’s crucial not to panic. In the face of a different kind of epidemic of loneliness and isolation, we must be thoughtful about where and why we promote physical isolation and online interactions over in-person ones. There is a cost to seclusion, and technology does not negate our fundamental human need to connect as human beings have connected for the entirety of our existence: in person.
But having thoughtful conversations about the value of in-person connection doesn’t require always defaulting to the in-person. Right now, we face a crisis of leadership in the midst of a serious public health threat.
We have a President who appears more concerned about his image than the public’s wellbeing, who “systematically dismantled” the very government programs and preparedness mechanisms that would have been able to manage this outbreak, and who doesn’t seem to under

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