Alarm grows over coronavirus as thousands prepare to travel to Texas for SXSW and Houston rodeo

Benjamin Gibson has a platinum badge to Austin’s annual South by Southwest festival — valued at $1,725 — that gives him an all-access pass to attend two weeks of concerts, film screenings and talks with notable figures like Hillary Clinton and Stephen Colbert.

But the 37-year-old Austin resident takes immunosuppressants. So he’s asking himself whether it’s worth the risk of attending a crowded, international gathering at a time when health experts are on high alert about the spread of a new, deadly strain of coronavirus — a contagious, flu-like illness that the World Health Organization has declared a public health emergency.

“The majority of South by Southwest, you’re packed in with a lot of people, you’re waiting in line, you’re in theaters. It seems like a petri dish for this kind of thing,” Gibson said.

The festival brings in hundreds of thousands of people to Austin every March. In 2019, 26% of the roughly 417,000 attendees were international, flying in from 105 countries. The event is a boon for Austin’s economy and made a record $356 million last year.

But fears over the new coronavirus, called COVID-19, have thousands calling for its cancellation. Statewide, health experts are wringing their hands over SXSW and other planned festivals in Texas that are scheduled to draw many thousands of people to a single location. At least one international event — oil and gas industry conference CERAWeek — has already been canceled in Houston over concerns about the disease.

As of Monday, with more than 100 cases of the new coronavirus confirmed in the U.S., nearly 19,000 people signed a petition to shut down SXSW, which is scheduled to take place from March 13-22.

“I believe that having an event like this is irresponsible amid an outbreak,” reads the petition organized by Shayla Lee. “Please think about the children, immune compromised, elderly, diabetic, asthmatic, etc. people who could die because of this.”

Meanwhile, some SXSW participants are pulling out. In early February, business development group China Gathering withdrew from the festival. Twitter suspended “all non-critical business travel and events” Sunday, including CEO Jack Dorsey’s planned appearance.

“This policy is effective immediately and will continue until the World Health Organization or Centers for Disease Control deem it appropriate to step back from pandemic precautionary measures or when a vaccine becomes available,” Twitter said in a statement. Facebook, which had about a dozen speakers scheduled to participate at SXSW, also pulled out from the event Monday evening.

Despite mounting pressure, SXSW is expected to go forward as planned. As of Monday, the event’s website said “the 2020 event is proceeding with safety as a top priority” and that organizers are working closely with local, state and federal agencies, as well as following recommendations from Austin Public Health.

“At this time, no health departments in the state have requested the cancellation of any gatherings as the current risk of person-to-person spread in their jurisdictions remains low,” the Austin Public Health website reads.

But some health experts say event organizers and participants should be aware of the risks.

“We don’t know how COVID-19 is going to shape up in the next few weeks, but any large gathering holds potential for viral spread of disease,” said Dr. Rama Thyagarajan, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School.

She recommended people exercise caution at any large public gatherings and take preventative measures like washing their hands, avoiding touching their faces, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home when sick.

SXSW isn’t the only event that could be attracting people to Texas in the coming weeks. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is still scheduled, event officials confirmed Monday, and is expected to have 2.6 million attendees over 20 days, with doors opening Tuesday.

“The Rodeo is working with and including information from the Houston Health Department to ensure the safety and well-being of our guests,” a spokesperson told The Texas Tribune.

Officials said the rodeo has increased the number of hand sanitizer stations throughout the event grounds, and guests are encouraged to use hand-washing stations.

Organizers of Houston’s CERAWeek event, on the other hand, played it safe and canceled “reluctantly and after deep consideration.” The five-day conference, which was to begin March 9, was expecting delegates from more than 80 countries to attend.

“[T]here is growing concern about large conferences with people coming from different parts of the world,” CERAWeek organizers said in a statement.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but he addressed questions during a Friday appearance on Fox Business.

“Our public health officials are looking and meeting every day on this crisis, talking to cities around the country, looking at the best practices,” Adler said. “No plans to cancel [SXSW] yet, but again, this virus is something that our city and all cities are looking at daily.”

Although SXSW isn’t expected to be disrupted by coronavirus fears, organizers say they are working to make the event as safe as possible.

“There is a lot about COVID-19 that is still unknown, but what we do know is that personal hygiene is of critical importance,” SXSW said in a statement. “We hope that people follow the science, implement the recommendations of public health agencies, and continue to participate in the activities that make our world connected.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin; Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman; and SXSW have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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