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Travellers are seen at Toronto Pearson Airport at a time when travel is being restricted due to fears over the spread of the Corona Virus on March 4, 2020.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Globe and Mail

Coronavirus fears are causing significant disruptions to business travel as companies navigate a response to the growing spread of the virus.

Businesses have been restricting employees from going abroad and telling those returning from affected areas to avoid coming into the office for several weeks. And a growing number of international conferences have also been cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Employees of Tim Hortons parent Restaurant Brands International Inc. now require approval from senior leaders to travel outside Canada, the United States, Switzerland and Singapore, where its primary head offices are located. Enbridge Inc. has limited non-essential travel, while its executives and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney are no longer going to Texas next week to speak at the world’s largest global energy conference after its cancellation. The law firm McCarthy Tétrault LLP has advised staff to “consider the risks” of both business and personal travel, asking firm members who leave Canada to check in before returning to the office in case it tightens its policy.

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This could be just the beginning of businesses shifting operations while the virus continues its global spread. Executive teams are proceeding cautiously, planning for a potential pandemic by developing self-quarantine leave processes and remote-work policies in case the virus makes a more significant domestic impact.

“I think people are being careful and planning ahead for the worst, but also doing it in a principled, respectful sort of way,” said Shane Todd, an employment law partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP in Toronto, who has been advising Canadian business clients on COVID-19 preparedness. "I think as the situation gets worse – and they tell us the situation will get worse – that will test our resolve and the plans we’ve put in place. But I think generally the business community is in good shape in Canada.”

Robyn Gibbard, a senior economist with the Conference Board of Canada, said cancelled conferences and business meetings could hinder companies from winning key investments or sales. “It’s yet another way that the echoes of this could be felt for years down the road,” he said, noting that it was “too soon to say for sure” how great the consequences could be and that teleconferences could offer partial relief.

Investment opportunities are also being hindered within Canada: Toronto-based investors coming to Calgary for an energy panel on March 12 pulled their plans after the event was cancelled owing to coronavirus fears. The panel discussion was to talk oil exploration and production, and opportunities in midstream investment.

Canadian companies with global operations have already grappled with operational consequences of the virus as it infects a growing number of victims worldwide. Sun Life Financial Inc. has implemented daily health monitoring of its employees in mainland China and Hong Kong, as it warned last month that sales could slow in the region. Mississauga-based mobile communications software firm SOTI Inc., one of Canada’s largest private software companies with operations in 28 countries, estimates it has already lost US$10-million in revenue opportunities, and US$2-million in wasted travel and event costs.

Carl Rodrigues, President and CEO of SOTI, poses for photos in their head office in Mississauga, Ont. on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

SOTI has faced delayed shipments from its supply chain in China and has cancelled any overseas travel. It expects executives to miss the opening of a new office in Sweden this month, potentially missing even further sales opportunities. “We’ll be fine, because we have money in the bank,” chief executive Carl Rodrigues said. “But companies running on the edge will have layoffs.”

The country’s largest bank, Royal Bank of Canada, has advised employees to defer non-essential travel to Hong Kong, mainland China and other specific areas affected by the virus, spokeswoman Gillian McArdle said. Spokespeople for Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and National Bank of Canada said staff now need authorization from senior managers for non-essential travel.

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Banks have also been reviewing business continuity plans, which include protocols to allow staff to work remotely, and for communicating with staff about how to mitigate health risks.

There is no single approach to handling business travel, even among companies within the same industry. Grocer Metro Inc., which said it does not typically have employees travel to China, has not imposed any business-travel restrictions. Sobeys Inc., however, cancelled all non-essential international travel.

“Employees returning from China and other high-risk travel locations have been provided with a 14-day paid leave to self-quarantine,” Sobeys spokeswoman Jacquelin Weatherbee said.

Global law firm Dentons cancelled a seminar this week at the massive Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada conference in Toronto. Spokeswoman Lisa Milligan said it was related to a firm policy that "all non-essential, cross-border travel be curtailed through the end of March.”

E-commerce firm Shopify Inc. last week cancelled its flagship Unite conference scheduled for Toronto in May, with early plans to hold a virtual event instead for its partner developers. Toronto’s Vena Solutions Inc., a financial-planning-and-analysis software company, said Wednesday that it had cancelled its annual conference for users and partners in Las Vegas scheduled for May. It expected more than 500 people to show up; the conference will now take place virtually.

The risks of COVID-19 have also begun spilling into sports and entertainment. Canadian musicians including Avril Lavigne and Wolf Parade have cancelled tours owing to the exposure to airports and the virus’s threat to fans. Hockey Canada, meanwhile, advised associations across the country to not let players share water bottles and for team staff to wear protective gloves when handling team laundry.

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The notice from Mark Aubry, the governing body’s chief medical officer, said players should change the way they congratulate each other after a game: “fist bump with hockey gloves on, instead of shaking hands.”

With reports from Susan Krashinsky Robertson, Emma Graney, Christine Dobby, Clare O’Hara, Sean Silcoff, James Bradshaw and Eric Atkins.

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