Coronavirus in Italy, Japan disrupts travel plans for Chicagoans; global financial markets, manufacturers still reeling

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Illinois remains unchanged at two. Thursday the Illinois Department of Public Health said testing is underway for two new possible cases.

Coronavirus has wreaked havoc on financial markets and consumer goods, but some of the most personal effects have been felt by those who had planned to travel to regions now coping with COVID-19 outbreaks.

Ken Gasper spent months training for the Tokyo marathon, but it was canceled for all non-elite runners due to the growing number of cases of coronavirus in Japan.

As a result, the North Side resident decided to cancel his trip to Japan altogether.

"We've got thousands of dollars set up on this trip, and we're scrambling since then to try to get as much of that as we possibly can back," he said.

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Travel problems due to COVID-19 have become widespread. Uday Gandhi was set to travel with his wife and daughter to Italy in March for Spring Break, but that changed when he learned of a surge in novel coronavirus in the European country.

"Being a family, I have a child traveling with me and that's very [sic] concern," he said. "I'm concerned about my child."

Now he wants to push his trip back, but was told by Expedia they can't help.

"They said you have either two options to do it: either you cancel your trip and you lose you rmoney, or you can enjoy your vacation," Gandhi said. "There is no way to enjoy something if there is an epidemic going on in that country."

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Italy is experiencing a rise in cases of COVID-19, and people trying to change or cancel travel plans are running into difficulty.

His family's case is not unique. The growing virus concerns have impacted big-name U.S. businesses. Thursday international grains trader and processor Cargill announced employees have stopped non-essential international travel, joining other companies like Nestle.

"It's really a personal decision. People have to feel comfortable where they are going," said Kendra Thornton, Royal Travel & Tours.

Thornton said the concern over novel coronavirus has many of her clients making last minute changes. She's since advised those who have not yet booked flights to add on extra insurance given the evolving situation overseas.

"There's a clause you can add which is a 'cancel for any reason,'" she said. "Typically those are available when you're in the early stages of booking your trip and that would allow you to cancel for whatever reason you gave, it wouldn't matter, and you would get a large portion of your trip."

For Gandhi and his family, without that added insurance he's left with few options.

"I'm just trying to reschedule; I'm just trying to be safe. You see a lot of stuff on TVs like what people go through once they are infected by this virus. You don't want to be in that situation. You don't want your family to be in that situation," he said.

American Airlines announced Thursday they have added Italy to their list of countries with travel waivers.


President Donald Trump announced Wednesday he was putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the efforts to handle coronavirus in the United States. With Wall Street reeling and officials concerned about a case of novel coronavirus of unknown origin in California, Pence convened his first meeting of the task force Thursday.

The president spoke about the threat Thursday night as well.

"It's going to disappear one day. It's like a miracle. It will disappear. And from our shores, you know, it could get worse before it gets better. Could maybe go away. We'll see what happens. Nobody really knows," Trump said.

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An Elkay Manufacturing employee in China gets his temperature taken on the way into work, part of the company's plan to keep their workforce healthy amid the coronavirus outbreak.

While some companies are struggling to survive, one in the Chicago area is armed and ready.

Although Elkay Manufacturing's roots run deep in the Chicago area, they're also global, with six locations in China and 150 employees.
"As many companies are, we're watching this very closely," said Ric Phillips, president and CEO of Elkay Manufacturing. "We're ensuring that for not only this situation, but other potential situations we have practices in place, we have task forces in place that think about our people."

Phillips' top concern, the people. About one-third of Elkay's staff is working from home.

"We've supplied over 2,000 masks to our people and their families in order to protect them," he said. "We take temperatures of our employees twice a day in China, and are monitoring and tracking that very closely."

Elkay started 100 years ago with a Chicago father and son who made sinks. The company still does today in Broadview.

Along with sinks, Elkay makes water fountains, bottle fillers and beverage systems. Phillips said that part of the company is doing well. The part that's taken a hit is their interior design for businesses.

"The number of renovations taking place in hotels and restaurants, given the concerns with the region, have slowed down," said Phillips.

The company's global presence is also an advantage. They have operations in the United States, including four plants in Illinois. They also have operations in China, Mexico and Austria.

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When a crisis hits, they put together an action plan.

"As this moves to different countries, we will track it and put our mitigation plans in place," said Kim King, senior director of procurement for Elkay Manufacturing.
For now, though, the Downers Grove company is grateful all their co-workers in China are healthy.

"Fortunately, all of our people and their families are safe, which is our top priority," Phillips said.

Because of the virus, Elkay has put their long-time action plan in place and created a task force to follow the impact.

Phillips is tracking the company, of course. But he also has a business trip planned to Italy in a few weeks. Because of an outbreak in that country, it's unclear whether or not he'll be able to travel.
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