South by Southwest Is Not Canceled Despite Coronavirus Concerns

The annual conglomeration of festivals is scheduled to run March 13-22

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At a news conference in Austin, Texas, this morning, local government and public health officials said they are not yet recommending South by Southwest cancel its conference and festivals, scheduled to begin next week, despite fears of coronavirus.

SXSW appears to be dodging a trend that has seen several high-profile events, including Facebook’s F8 conference, Mobile World Congress and Dubai Lynx, get canceled or postponed due to the epidemic.

“At this point, there’s no evidence to suggest that canceling South by Southwest makes the community safer,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “But that question is being reevaluated and reconsidered multiple times every day.”

Since it was first reported to the World Health Organization in December, the virus has spread to more than 75 countries. More than 90,000 cases of the virus have been reported, and more than 3,000 people have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

SXSW, launched in 1987 with 700 attendees, occurs over two weekends in the Texas capital. The event features a conference and several festivals, covering a wide range of industries and topics including advertising, tech, education, music, film, gaming and politics.

Last year, SXSW conference and festivals drew roughly 417,400 people, according to its website, and advertisers and marketers made up the biggest industry representation at the events.

While most participants are U.S.-based, 26% of attendees traveled to SXSW last year from 105 countries outside the U.S.

Via the event’s website, SXSW released a list of the top 10 countries that attendees are traveling from this year: Brazil, U.K., Germany, Canada, Japan, Mexico, France, Taiwan, Spain and Ireland—all of which have reported cases of the virus. SXSW said it isn’t expecting any attendees from China, where the coronavirus was first reported, due to travel restrictions.

The festival also posted information on its website last weekend regarding the special precautions it was undertaking in light of COVID-19. It said that it was working with local, state and federal agencies to “plan for a safe event.”

At the news conference this morning, Austin Public Health’s interim health director Mark Escott said city officials are working with SXSW to mitigate any increased risk to the public or festivalgoers. “The threat of community spread in Austin remains low, but we are prepared for that to happen here,” Escott said.

Escott also raised concerns about the possible repercussions of canceling SXSW at this point. Losing the organizational structure of the festival could, he said, put the city at a higher risk if would-be attendees travel to Austin anyway.

As part of its plan to mitigate the risk of a potential outbreak, Escott said SXSW organizers will screen all festival volunteers and workers and encourage frequent hand washing and sanitizing through signage and hygiene stations.

At least one person in Travis County is currently being tested for coronavirus, but there have not yet been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Central Texas.

Several notable attendees have backed out of the event. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who was booked for a keynote interview during the conference, pulled out on Sunday. The company released a policy the same day banning all noncritical employee travel, and canceled its planned events at SXSW.

Following Twitter’s announcement, Facebook, Mashable, Amazon Studios and Intel also canceled SXSW travel and events this week.

A petition to cancel the event exceeded 40,000 signatures by the time of SXSW’s announcement. The petition was created by Austin resident Shayla Lee, according to the website. Lee wrote that she was “concerned about the hundreds of thousands of people” traveling to the city for the festival. “I believe that having an event like this is irresponsible amid an outbreak.”

@klundster Kathryn Lundstrom is Adweek's breaking news reporter based in Austin.