By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) – Warren Buffett on Friday said the coronavirus pandemic forced him to cancel Berkshire Hathaway Inc’s <BRKa.N> annual shareholder weekend, the largest gathering in corporate America, because the safety of participants and the wider community was paramount.
The weekend, which Berkshire’s billionaire chairman calls “Woodstock for Capitalists” and normally attracts more than 40,000 people, had been scheduled for May 1-3 in several locations across Omaha, Nebraska, where Berkshire is based.
Buffett said “events have moved very fast” since he discussed the weekend in his Feb. 22 shareholder letter.
Berkshire’s annual meeting will still be live-streamed on May 2 on Yahoo Finance, but shareholders cannot physically attend, and surrounding events have been canceled. Omaha has about 468,000 people.
“Large gatherings can pose a health threat to the participants and the greater community,” Buffett said. “We won’t ask this of our employees and we won’t expose Omaha to the possibility of becoming a ‘hot spot’ in the current pandemic.”
Buffett’s hand was forced after the World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, countries and cities worldwide curbed large gatherings, and many companies canceled events or moved them online.
Omaha this year also will not host the College World Series of baseball, which the NCAA canceled on Thursday, for the first time since it moved there in 1950.
Berkshire’s annual meeting normally lasts about 15 minutes, but is preceded by five hours in which Buffett, 89, and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, 96, answer shareholder questions. Buffett said he and possibly Munger may still field some questions.
Health experts consider elderly people the most at risk of dying from the coronavirus.
The weekend has long been a high point for Buffett, who routinely mingles in close proximity to shareholders and fans, often with a horde of media nearby.
Events this year were expected to include a cocktail reception filling a shopping mall, a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) run, and shopping discounts that provide Berkshire with millions of dollars of revenue.
Only about a dozen people attended Berkshire’s annual meeting in 1965, the year Buffett took over the company.
Attendance surged after Berkshire in 1996 introduced Class B shares, now worth 1/1500th of Class A shares, enabling more people to make pilgrimages to Omaha.
By 2015, there were 42,000 attendees helping Buffett celebrate his 50th anniversary at the helm.
The meeting and shareholder questions have since 2004 been conducted at the downtown CHI Health Center arena, which holds close to 19,000 people and normally fills to capacity.
Buffett expressed hope the weekend will return in 2021.
“Charlie and I will miss you, but we will see many thousands of you next year,” he told shareholders.
(Reporting by Noor Zainab Hussain in Bengaluru and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Nick Zieminski)