SXSW festival canceled amid concerns over the coronavirus, Austin mayor and Travis County issue disaster declaration for the city and county

The internationally attended South By Southwest festival has been canceled amid concerns over the coronavirus following a March 6 order from Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. (Chris Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
The internationally attended South By Southwest festival has been canceled amid concerns over the coronavirus following a March 6 order from Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. (Chris Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

The internationally attended South By Southwest festival has been canceled amid concerns over the coronavirus following a March 6 order from Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. (Chris Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

The internationally attended South By Southwest Conference & Festivals has been canceled amid concerns over the coronavirus, following a March 6 order from Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who issued a disaster declaration for the city and county.

"Based on the recommendation of our public health officer and director of public health and after consultation with the city manager, I’ve gone ahead and declared a local disaster in the city," Adler said. "And associated with that, I have issued an order that effectively cancels South by Southwest for this year."

Eckahrdt said the decision to declare a local disaster and cancel the festival was one driven by data.

"Panic will weaken us. This is not a panic-based decision," Eckhardt said.

Austin/Travis County Medical Director Dr. Mark Escott, who made the recommendation to the city and county, said canceling the festival was the only option. Escott said the international attendance at SXSW was a key element in deciding to shut the festival down.


"There's a lack of conclusive, scientific evidence that canceling mass gatherings will change the overall impact and spread of the disease over time," Escott said. "However, there is evidence it may accelerate the spread and may make that happen sooner. ... After careful deliberation, there was no acceptable path forward that would mitigate the risk enough to protect our community."

The decision to declare a local disaster gives more unilateral authority to Adler and Eckhardt to make executive decisions aimed at protecting the health and safety of residents, such as canceling SXSW. According to a release from city and county officials, under the disaster declaration, events with 2,500 or more attendees are prohibited, unless organizers can assure public health officials that plan to mitigate an infectious disease outbreak are in place.

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Despite the disaster declaration, the health authority still anticipates significant numbers of visitors to the Austin/Travis County area over the spring festival season," city and county officials said in a release. "The planning and coordination efforts therefore continue."

Impact of the cancellation


The announcement comes one week after SXSW said on its website the festival would proceed as planned. In a statement posted March 6, SXSW said it is working to reschedule the event at a later date.

According to the SXSW 2019 annual report, the festival programming was attended by more than 230,000 people last year.

Attendees came from 106 nations across the world last year, and international visitors made up 26% of all attendees, according to the SXSW annual reports. The economic impact of the cancellation promises to be massive across the city. As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, SXSW contributed a $355.9 million economic impact to the Austin economy in 2019, according to a report by Greyhill Advisors.

The report said that more than 12,000 rooms were booked during the festival last year, earning the city of Austin nearly $1.7 million in hotel occupancy tax revenue.

As of March 6, the Houston area has six confirmed cases of COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the coronavirus, according to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. Travis County has administered tests for the virus but has no confirmed cases, according to Austin/Travis County Medical Director Dr. Mark Escott.

Globally, there have been 98,192 confirmed cases across 89 countries and territories, with 3,380 deaths. More than 80% of the confirmed cases and 90% of the deaths have occurred in China, according to a March 6 World Health Organization report. In the U.S., there have been 148 confirmed cases and 10 confirmed deaths, according to the WHO report.

This is a developing story, check back for updates.

Christopher Neely - Iain Oldman