On Friday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced that he was declaring a local disaster because of concerns over the novel coronavirus, effectively canceling the South by Southwest music, tech, and film festival that the city was set to host next week. “It is really unfortunate to be canceling SXSW. It is really important to our city,” the mayor said. There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Austin, Texas, and the broader Travis County area, but city officials pointed to the presence of international guests, the lack of a vaccine, and uncertainty about whether the festival could accelerate the virus’s spread as reasons for the cancellation.
SXSW’s absence will undoubtedly dent Austin’s economy; in 2019, the festival brought a record $356 million to the city. It will also throttle the plans of the record labels, film studios, and tech companies that depend on the heavy media presence the festival draws each spring to promote their talent and launch their newest products. Taken with several other reluctantly made but probably inevitable cancellations this week, it suggests we’ve entered the stage of the outbreak where large public gatherings drawing people from all over the globe have simply become too risky not to call off.
“ ‘The show must go on’ is in our DNA, and this is the first time in 34 years that the March event will not take place,” the SXSW organizers wrote in a statement posted on the festival’s website Friday afternoon. “We are now working through the ramifications of this unprecedented situation.” The statement also notes that they are looking into rescheduling the event and are working on setting up a virtual SXSW experience. Meanwhile, Austin officials mentioned that other mass gatherings could still take place in the city if disease mitigation plans were put into place.
SXSW had been facing pressure over the past month to call off the festival, which attracts hundreds of thousands of people from more than 100 different countries. Major companies like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google announced in recent weeks that they would be canceling their events at SXSW and would not be sending any employees to attend in order to cut down on business travel. A Change.org petition also accumulated more than 55,000 people calling on the organizers to cancel or reschedule the festival. SXSW had long said that it would take cues from public health officials. It’s possible, as Variety wrote this week, that the organizers were waiting on the city to force their hand to cancel the festival, rather than doing it themselves, which would put them in a better position for claiming insurance and defending against potential lawsuits.
This is only the latest in a string of coronavirus-related festival cancellations and delays in the United States. Organizers for the Comic Con in Seattle also announced on Friday that they would be postponing the convention, which was originally scheduled for next week, until the summer, partly because the state of Washington has become a hotbed for the coronavirus, with 70 cases. Miami city officials also came to an agreement on Thursday with the organizers of Ultra, a massive EDM festival, to cancel the event for this year. Tech companies were also quick to scuttle their annual conferences: Facebook canceled its F8 developer conference last week, and Google canceled its I/O event earlier this week.
Asked about the risks of holding campaign events on Friday, President Donald Trump said “It doesn’t bother me at all.”