The suspension of all travel from Europe to the US will greatly affect the horticultural industry, especially since more and more travel limitations are expected or already in place. Suppliers and builders respond to the current situation and how to do business when you can't visit your project.
The airplane Henk Verbakel (from Havecon) was in this week, travelling to New York, was emptier than any he'd seen before. A strange situation - and that was before President Trump announced a 30-day travel suspension for all EU citizens coming to the US.
It's not just the US where travel restrictions are appearing. Guatemala for example also announced that they will not allow Europeans into the country - a reason for Manuel Guerrero (with Spanish greenhouse builder Asthor) to cancel his visit to Mexico and the upcoming trade show there, since he's convinced other countries in the area will follow. "I was supposed to visit Guatemala after the show - but I think the way things are now, I will not plan any trips for at least the next couple of months", he says - being proven right almost immediately, with El Salvador also announcing it would refuse EU citizens. In addition, countries like Vietnam and India no longer hand out visas to EU citizens or apply more strict rules - in general global travel is limited day by day.
Alternative ways of communication are key for the moment, and these are also implemented broadly at greenhouse builder Havecon, something that's necessary since an important part of their projects takes place in the US and Canada. "Fortunately this is possible", says William Boxman with Havecon. "Precautions will be taken by getting enough laptops and good connections in place."
For now, at their US projects, construction can continue as usual. "As far as we now know, all the necessary materials can go through customs. The people from Voorwinden and Havecon that are on location, can continue to do their job. But if they have to, they will of course be brought back."
Also for Hortipar the people currently present in the US are top of mind, Aad van Ruijven says: "It's a tricky situation, it is complex. What are we going to do with our team present in the US right now? Should we let them come back?" For now they decided to contact their team members currently present and offer them the possibility to return home. "If they decide to stay, they can - but there will be a risk of not being able to come home when they want to, since probably many flights will be canceled. The airlines won't want to fly empty so the number of return flights is decreasing. It's already difficult to reach the airlines at the moment."
In addition, the four flights booked for team members to go to the US have been canceled as well. "They would go there to join construction meetings and to supervise the projects. Now they call every day, use Facebook, dial in, and use video to continue the work. We're hoping to be back at the projects soon."
For the US the situation might be clear, yet for other countries the confusion is an issue as well. The team with Agrikol currently has 35 projects ongoing all over the world. "We know our Saudi team is stuck there at the moment", Nikola Petkovic says, "and we know we cannot send people to Sweden at the moment. The same goes for travelling by car: Croatia should be avoided. Yet how other countries will respond and how long the situation will continue, is unclear. Of course safety and health are prior in this, so we keep an eye out on day to day base to respond to changes right away."
Delays and cancellations
Will it affect the date by which projects are completed? The team with Hortipar anticipated and feared measures like this already. "It will all be straightened out before the deadlines in the autumn, but projects that ought to be finished in April might be a different story. It's a difficult situation. Aad: "We were in a good mood. That has now changed. Of course this is force majeure and nobody is to blame - but how that's stated in all contracts is something for the legal teams. We probably all have to give in a bit."
Also future projects could be affected by the new situation, Manuel with Asthor expects. “Some of our clients are uncertain about going ahead with their planned expansions due to problems with international freights, which may affect their sales”
One thing is clear: this will not be the end of the consequences from the virus outbreak and probably more unexpected news will come up. For Koen Brabander with PB Tec the current travel restrictions were also a surprise. "Of course we talked through many scenarios with our team, but since Trump said for a long time that Corona was just a flu and that everything was under control in the United States, I was put on the wrong foot," he says, revealing he even lost the bet they made within their board of directors.
PB Tec has an office in Alberta, Canada, just across the border with the US. "From there everything can go on and we don't have to be delayed - but I am curious how long these measures will be in force. I can't imagine that this will take long."
"Up until last week, the Coronavrius did not affect our business much and our clients only lamented lower revenues. Things are different this week and the smaller clients selling to local markets are clearly the ones in most difficulty," reports Alessandra Di Maio from CO.SER. CO.SER produces iron-plastic greenhouses (with both plastic film and semi-rigid material covers) and specializes in the construction of solutions for sectors such as the floriculture and nursery sector as well as photovoltaic greenhouses and warehouses.
"Our clients, however, are mainly businesses selling abroad and large retailers, who are not facing big problems at the moment. It seems their only fear concerns the closing of their sales channels abroad or problems in the movement of goods. As long as food and agricultural products keep on moving, damage should be limited."
"While we wait to understand how things will evolve, we are making quotations with suspended acceptance. Of course this situation as an effect on investments and therefore on the construction of new greenhouses."
"It is difficult to make forecasts in this context, as it is an unusual situation for everyone. The impact of the virus will only be seen over the next few months. The duration of the emergency and the uncertainty it causes are the most relevant factors at the moment."
"We are hoping that the virus can be contained soon so things can return to normal."
Sneeze in the arm
In addition to the travel restrictions, also at the offices of the European suppliers measures are in place. With Havecon and Hortipar, the teams are urged to follow preventive measures such as washing hands thoroughly and frequently and staying home when there's indications of illness present. In addition, they look at opportunities to have their teams work remotely, something that is advised already in parts of the Netherlands.
"Where I live, Asturias in the north of Spain, the situation is not very bad but we are getting more COVID-19 positives", Manuel with Asthor adds. "Slowly the authorities are taking measures like closing all schools in the capital city, Oviedo, from today and during the next 14 days, many other massive events are being cancelled. Some people in some companies are already working from home. At our office we are not there yet but depending on the situation next week we will probably take the same approach."