Coronavirus concerns prompt Austin officials to cancel SXSW

Austin Mayor Steve Adler declared a local disaster Friday in response to the new coronavirus and issued an order canceling South by Southwest for the first time in its 34-year history. The 10-day event was scheduled to begin next Friday and expected hundreds of thousands of attendees to fly in from around the globe.

The decision was prompted by a recommendation from an expert advisory panel made up of 13 medical professionals. Major sponsors and companies had already pulled out of the event, including Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and Apple, and a petition to cancel the event had garnered over 50,000 signatures.

“We looked at the options for mitigation, we looked at other opportunities to decrease the threat to an acceptable level that would allow us to continue,” Dr. Mark Escott, Austin’s interim medical director and health authority, said at the press conference. “However, after careful deliberation, there was no acceptable path forward that would mitigate the risk enough to protect our community.”

There have been no known cases of the virus being spread through the community in Texas. By Friday afternoon, at least 17 people had tested positive for the virus, and all of them were exposed overseas. Eleven of those cases were among people who were repatriated and quarantined at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. At least six more were people from the Houston area who had recently traveled to Egypt. Escott said there are no confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus in Austin, though there are tests pending.

SXSW organizers are “devastated,” but they “honor and respect the City of Austin’s decision,” according to a statement released on Twitter.

Spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus that originated in China, has resulted in the cancellation of many other events across the country: the Houston-based oil and gas industry conference CERAWeek; Google’s I/O developer event, the tech company’s biggest event of the year; and Miami’s Ultra Music Festival, among others. Internationally, the Geneva Motor Show was shut down after the Swiss government banned gatherings of over 1,000 people, and the European Parliament has canceled over 100 events.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced the cancellation South by Southwest at a City Hall press conference Friday.

SXSW told The Texas Tribune on Monday that the festival would go on as planned and that organizers were taking precautions to reduce health risks for attendees. On Thursday, Austin Public Health maintained that no good would come from closing the festival.

“Right now there is no evidence that closing South by Southwest or other activities is going to make this community safer,” Escott said in a statement. “We are constantly monitoring that situation. We’ve asked [an expert advisory panel] to evaluate that. And if there’s any evidence that our community will be safer by closing down mass gathering events, we will do that.”

But in recent days, several more scheduled guests dropped out of the lineup, and public pressure to cancel the event continued to grow. The origin of SXSW attendees, and the recent Houston-area cases, were key factors in deciding to cancel the event, Escott said at the Friday press conference.

“One of the concerns that we had is that many of those individuals would have been placed under control orders or quarantine on their arrival to the city of Austin,” Escott said. “Our concern was, there was a possibility that those individuals would intentionally violate that control order and come to the event, which is difficult for us to control.”

Festival passes can cost up to $1,725, but “SXSW does not issue refunds under any circumstances,” according to its website, nor does it offer credit for future festivals.

With programming spanning music, film, gaming, tech and education, SXSW brought in attendees from 106 countries last year, and a quarter of all attendees were international. In 2019, the festival raked in a record $356 million.

“All ramifications are secondary to helping to ensure we are safe as a community,” Adler said when asked about the cancellation’s economic impact on the city.

The virus — which causes seasonal flu-like symptoms — has a fatality rate of 3.4%, according to the World Health Organization. There are 17 cases of the virus in Texas; in 11 of those cases, people infected abroad were repatriated and held at a San Antonio military base.

“I think that part of any kind of event like this requires a city to be resilient,” Adler said. “Obviously the city has some social net programs to help with resiliency in the community, and I know it’s something that we’ll continue to look at. It’s the first time we’ve been in this situation, and I think we’ll learn as we move forward.”

Events where the majority of attendees are Texas residents, such as high school and most University of Texas at Austin events, present less risk, Escott said. Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said the panel will continue to review Austin events on a case-by-case basis.

“Any large gathering holds potential for viral spread of disease,” Dr. Rama Thyagarajan, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School and a member of Austin Public Health’s expert advisory panel, said earlier this week. “My message is for anyone attending any large public gathering to be informed about the risks of this virus spreading, and to take measures to protect yourself appropriately.”

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman; SXSW; and the University of Texas at Austin 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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