Amid coronavirus fears, city cancels SXSW

Officials determine that health risks outweigh economic costs of canceling festival for the first time in its history

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Alysa Spiro

SAY BYE TO SOUTH BY: A ride through downtown Austin reveals no signage for the SXSW Festival that would have started this upcoming Friday. Tourist rates have dropped significantly because of both coronavirus fears and SXSW's cancellation. "The city of Austin has a budget for 2020 that involved hotel occupancy taxes, and that’s what they use to fund roads," explained businessman Shawn Cirkiel. "This year for SXSW, occupancy for hotels went down from 100 percent to 10 percent. So now, the city of Austin, which has been budgeting that money to build roads, that money is gone." Photo by Alysa Spiro.

Alysa Spiro, staff reporter

On Friday, seven days before the scheduled start of South By Southwest, the City of Austin officials announced that the popular festival would be cancelled.  

The cancellation of SXSW came as a shock to some because just two days earlier, on Wednesday, city health officials were advocating for the festival to remain open. 

I believe that having an event like this is irresponsible amid an outbreak.”

— Shayla Lee, the creator of the Change.com petition to cancel SXSW

In a press release released by the city of Austin on Friday, however, the city of Austin shifted their stance on the commencement of the festival.

“Austin-Travis County leaders have declared a ‘local state of disaster’ to more proactively increase preventative measures and require mitigation plans for events in the region,” the release said. 

Dr. Mark Escott, Austin’s interim health official, was instrumental in reaching the decision.

While there is no clear guidance on what local jurisdictions should do under these circumstances,” Escott said, “our local expert advisory panel took a look at the risk factors and identified a number of concerns.

According to the press release, these “risk factors” included “the likelihood for extended close personal contact, crowd density, a significant number of travelers from areas currently experiencing person-to-person spread of COVID-19 domestically and internationally, a high number of guests coming from unknown locations, the lack of a vaccine and limited treatment options to manage cases.”

This year for SXSW, occupancy for hotels went down from 100 percent to 10 percent. So now, the city of Austin, which has been budgeting that money to build roads, that money is gone.”

— Austin restaurant owner Shawn Cirkiel

With this declaration, SXSW was left no choice but to cancel the event. Since it was founded in 1987, SXSW has occurred in Austin every year, making this year’s cancellation the first time since its founding that the event will not take place.

As recently as Wednesday, Austin Public Health stated that ‘there’s no evidence that closing SXSW or any other gatherings will make the community safer.’ However, this situation evolved rapidly, and we honor and respect the City of Austin’s decision,” SXSW officials said in a website update regarding the last minute change. “We are committed to do our part to help protect our staff, attendees, and fellow Austinites.” 

While some may be shocked by this sudden turn of events, others may argue that the cancellation was predictable. Preceding Friday’s announcement, many of the companies headlining SXSW, including Apple, Facebook, Tik Tok and Twitter had all dropped out. 

For local businesses participating in the event, including MAC family businesses, the last-minute cancellation has major financial repercussions. Shawn Cirkiel, the father of sophomore Noah Cirkiel and owner of multiple Austin restaurants, had scheduled restaurant rentals for the entire week. Like many other business owners involved with SXSW, he feels the effects of the cancellation on many different levels.

Fox 7 Austin reporter Leslie Rangel was on the McCallum campus on March 3 to interview AV teacher Ken Rogers and two of his students, Alex Martinez (short film) and Zeke French (animation), who were to have their work showcased at SXSW later this month. Rogers will be featured by Fox 7 Austin as a Change Maker, which highlights people who are making a difference in the Austin community. “I’m pretty disappointed it got cancelled,” said AV teacher Henry Rogers. “However, I can understand the pressure the city had on them from all the residents. I think the coronavirus scare is legit.” Reporting by Sam Buford. Photo by Dave Winter.

“I was talking to a vendor yesterday, and they ordered beer in March,” Cirkiel said. “The manufacturer manufactured the beer in December and January, the vendor ordered in March and had it delivered. Now they have $2 million worth of beer sitting in a warehouse that none of us are going to buy. And this warehouse isn’t in Austin, it’s in Elgin. So now Elgin is impacted. So you can see how this cancellation spiderwebs across everybody.”

Cirkiel also explained the potential impact the SXSW cancellation will have on Austin economy and infrastructure. 

As a filmmaker, you need that platform to speak so people can associate you with your work. Now I can’t get any exposure for the film I made.”

— junior Alex Martinez, whose film was scheduled to appear at the 2020 SXSW Festival

“The city of Austin has a budget for 2020 that involved hotel occupancy taxes, and that’s what they use to fund roads,” Cirkiel said.  “This year for SXSW, occupancy for hotels went down from 100 percent to 10 percent. So now, the city of Austin, which has been budgeting that money to build roads, that money is gone. Now the city is forced to make a decision: do they make up that money from somewhere else? Do they cut services? Do they lay off staff? How do you treat for both now and the future?”

In a report discussing SXSW’s insurance policy published by the Austin Chronicle, SXSW co-founders Nick Barbaro and Roland Swenson confirmed that the cancellation is not covered by insurance. 

“We have a lot of insurance (terrorism, injury, property destruction, weather),” Swenson told the Chronicle. “However, bacterial infections, communicable diseases, viruses and pandemics are not covered.”

The cancellation also came as a disappointment to MAC students planning to attend the event. Junior Alex Martinez was chosen to present his film, The Contemporary Complex, at SXSW. 

“As a filmmaker, you need that platform to speak so people can associate you with your work” Martinez said. “Now I can’t get any exposure for the film I made.”

Regarding the cause of cancellation, Martinez is doubtful cancelling the event will make much of a difference in the spread of coronavirus to Austin. 

“The people at SXSW sent out an email to all artists and they basically said, ‘We’re following the cities guidelines, but we don’t believe cancelling will help the situation because people are still coming here, people still bought tickets, and people are going to come to Austin anyways,’” Martinez said. “I was just downtown the other day, and there was a billion people. I’m sure someone is going to get it [coronavirus].”

For some Austinites, however, this decision comes as a huge relief. A Change.com petition to cancel SXSW got more than 55,000 signatures from people concerned SXSW will inevitably bring coronavirus to Austin.

“I’m concerned about the hundreds of thousands of people who will be traveling to Austin in March for the SXSW festival,” said Shayla Lee, the creator of the Change.com petition. “I believe that having an event like this is irresponsible amid an outbreak.”

The city of Austin has yet to report any cases of coronavirus. 

Alysa Spiro
The Austin Convention Center, the hub of SXSW, was void of humanity today except for workers there who would not comment on the SXSW cancellation and the ominous message on the monitor about the virus that caused the cancellation of the festival that would have had this venue teeming with humanity in just two days.