On Friday, following concern over COVID-19 and a tsunami of cancellations from South by Southwest 2020 attendees, sponsors, corporate entities, and media organizations, Austin mayor Steven Adler and Travis County officials announced a state of disaster that formally canceled the festival. On late Monday afternoon, in an interview for Texas Monthly’s National Podcast of Texas, Adler explained the decision. He said that while he knew it would likely impact a wide swath of the Austin economy, he prioritized the counsel of public health experts who advised that opening Austin to thousands of festivalgoers from out of town was simply too dangerous.
But Adler also asked Austin to continue to support local bars and restaurants during what would have been the ten days of South by Southwest and beyond. He’s helped launch Stand With Austin—a fund, administered by the Austin Community Foundation, designed to collect charitable donations to assist individuals and small businesses negatively impacted by the cancellation of SXSW.
(The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. You can listen to the podcast episode here.)
Texas Monthly: On Friday, not long before the press conference, you spoke for a few minutes over at Capital Factory. Looking at the clips that were recorded there, you seemed relatively, if not upbeat, at least on the fence about canceling SXSW. And then an hour later the whole thing was canceled. What was the tipping point? How did you get to that decision in the course of an hour on Friday afternoon?
SA: I knew when I was at Capital Factory what was happening. But it was not my place, or prerogative, or ability to be able to announce it there at that time. The meetings, with the county and with the public health officials had taken place just before I left for Capital Factory. So when I was asked at Capital Factory by Evan Smith whether it was happening, I said, “I’m not going to announce that here.” And I spoke to the issues that were real issues, in the hypothetical.
TM: In the end, while you say public safety came first, did it come down to public safety versus SXSW’s $355 million of economic impact? Was the consideration between maintaining that money, effectively rolling the dice, and doing what you did?
TM: Is that an oversimplification?
SA: Yes. And it wouldn’t be an accurate description. We made a decision based on what was in the best health interest for the city. And that is not an easy choice.
You don’t want the virus to come here any sooner than it might otherwise come. And, certainly, if you’re inviting 100,000 to 200,000 people into your city, you enhance the risk that the virus is going to arrive. At the same time, if you close SXSW in recognition of that enhanced risk, you also have to recognize that you’re losing SXSW and its organization, its ability to be able to message to 100,000 people the creation of a cool meme for fist bumping that we might have at this point.
You also have to recognize that canceling the event impacts the health of the city in other ways: some people probably will lose their jobs, or at least lose income or health insurance. So in six weeks, eight weeks, ten weeks, twelve weeks, do you have somebody who is not seeing a physician that might otherwise have seen one because they don’t have the income from SXSW in order to be able to do that? That makes the city less safe. So just focusing on safety, this is still a really difficult decision to make. But ultimately we decided that we needed to be focused on what keeps our city the safest.
TM: SXSW itself wasn’t publicly speaking much in those days leading up to the decision, but their messaging seemed to suggest that there’s not that many people coming from out of town, that it’s not the busiest month at our airport for international flights, and that the potential danger, the economic trickle-down of a cancellation and its effect on public health were worse than just having the festival.
SA: As of last Tuesday, our experts agreed with that analysis. But between Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, we started seeing an increased number of person-to-person spreading of the virus.
TM: But not in Austin.
SA: No, but from towns that were sending large groups of people to Austin. I think we had six thousand people coming from Seattle. I wasn’t the point person in those conversations, but circumstances changed between Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, with information and data like the person-to-person spread in Houston and Fort Bend County. So the circumstances changed. And our public health officers being advised by our three hospital groups in town, the top infectious disease specialist physician at Dell Medical School, and the top public health professionals in Central Texas had advised us to close SXSW. And we did.
TM: The next day, Saturday, you launched Stand With Austin. The idea is to get people out, to encourage them to support the local businesses that might be the most affected by the cancellation. A lot of people saw that as a mixed message because it was “SXSW is dangerous” on Friday, yet people moving along those same streets, going to those same clubs, was now being encouraged. What’s the distinction?
SA: Well, the decision to close South By was not a decision to close the rodeo, nor was it a decision to close University of Texas basketball games or baseball games. Those are also big events. But none of those events has the same international draw that South By has. None of them were bringing in the same number of people from cities where there had been person-to-person spread of the disease. I think you take a look at each one of these events differently.
Quite frankly, I’m going to continue to go out to restaurants. I don’t know that I would go to a restaurant right now in some of the cities where there’s person-to-person transfers of the disease. I’m happy to sit in a restaurant with anybody in Austin. But I’m not sure I want to be in a restaurant full of people who just arrived from Seattle. I think there are just different criteria and different factors that take place, and our city will continue to evaluate and analyze events in this city based on the then best available data and information.
TM: Sunday night, we read in the Wall Street Journal that Roland Swenson, the CEO of South by Southwest, says he doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to make payroll in July.
SA: I can’t speak to the business decisions that South By needs to make. I’m not privy to their books, and certainly they haven’t asked my advice. But I am encouraged that Swenson said in that Wall Street Journal article that he’d be back and that South By would be back. He wasn’t exactly sure what the path to that might be. But I’m encouraged by that. I expect South By to be back. I’m counting on South By coming back.
TM: Is SXSW too important to Austin to allow it to fail? Is there a city intervention somehow, a city bail out? What if there were no South by Southwest?
SA: The city would suffer. I think that that it’s one of the really neat programs that we have in this city, both for people that live here and don’t. It’s part of our brand as a city. And I hope and expect that it’ll come back. I haven’t heard of any kind of conversation about the city bailing out South By.
TM: You don’t anticipate that being a good idea?
SA: No. And quite frankly, nobody has raised that. Even the folks at South By haven’t raised that.
TM: How did your conversations with them go in those days leading up to this? Early on you said they’re going to do what you suggested. So you had a cooperation agreement early on. Were those tense days between you and them?
SA: No, these were not tense moments at all. I think South By, to their credit, always seemed to be motivated, as we were, with the safety and health of the community at all turns. They presented themselves that way. And I know the individuals with South By, and I believe them to be truly motivated that way. They wanted to be kept abreast of the evaluations that were going on, the kind of criteria that were being considered. They were supplying information to our public health experts as our public health experts would ask for it. Who’s coming from where? What kind of events do you have? What are the number of people in the venues? All those kinds of things.
This was different, perhaps than in some other cities. I’ve talked to other mayors with big events and their discussions were not as harmonious.
TM: Is it too early to see what takeaway lessons this experience might give us about either economics or public health?
SA: We had a virus that was initiated somehow and spread, so there’s probably all kinds of lessons to be learned that are associated with those two things. But we are one world, and we’re not going to be able to stop viruses like this one from being able to spread. I think that the protocols and systems that this city had set up worked pretty well in terms of making sure that the people that needed to get information were getting the information that they needed, and that there was the sufficient calm for the people who had to make hard decisions or had to give difficult advice. So our systems work the way that they should.
You know, imagine a tornado comes through a town and knocks out several neighborhoods. You can have the best disaster response you want, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the tornado came in and knocked down people’s homes. Maybe people got hurt. That’s what’s happened to us. This is very much like a tornado and a natural disaster that has befallen our city. When we’re going to deal with that disaster, that catastrophe, we’re going to mitigate it as best we can. We’re going to be as resilient as we possibly can be. This is a strong city with a really special spirit. I have no doubt that we have what it takes to be able to withstand what’s happening here.
TM: The creative community that you’ve spent a lot of time trying to look at options for, along with the service industry, are going to take the hardest hit here, other than maybe South by Southwest, the company. The cancellation adds problems to problems though, because we know creatives have been in a tight spot economically for a long time now as the city grows up around them.
SA: There’s no question that our artists are among the communities or populations in our city that are most threatened. Which is why we have to do the best job of resiliency and mitigation we can do. We don’t quite know exactly what all the impacts are going to be. We don’t know what next week is really going to look like.
We’re watching the hotel revenue, so we can anticipate the kind of impact cancellation might have on the cultural arts programs in our city. We’re promising to get those numbers out to the arts community just as quickly as we can so that they can be knowledgeable of—and part of—the conversation.
We’re also watching to see what happens to sales tax revenue generally in the city to see how that might impact our budget, and whether we have to take steps to mitigate that as we approach another fiscal year, or even to adjust for this fiscal year. We’re dealing now with ramifications. Everybody is pedaling as fast as they can to address as many of the issues as we can. This was a hard decision to make.
TM: Was it the toughest decision of your tenure?
SA: Easily, because I knew the impact that it was going to be having on so many people. And we are working hard to try to mitigate that as best we can.
TM: It seems from a public health perspective that as more tests are available, we’re going to get more positive tests and eventually we won’t have the luxury of sitting here and saying, “It’s not yet in Austin.” Is that going to be another whole situation that compounds upon this one? A lot of people think it might be inevitable anyway.
SA: I think the spread of the disease here is inevitable. I don’t think that closing down South By was intended to stop the disease from getting here because it is coming. The assessment of our public health professionals was that we were risking it coming here more quickly, or in a greater way with a greater impact. And the longer we could put that off, the better this city is.
I don’t know what the turn of events is going to be. We asked the question, “In twelve weeks, how is Austin any different if we close South By or we don’t close South By?” We had those kinds of conversations. We know that as you get into the warmer months, most flus like this dissipate in the population, and then they pick back up again in the late fall. If we could push our outbreak to that point in time, maybe there is a vaccine at that point. Maybe there’s a different way of treating it? Maybe there’s different protocols associated with testing?
TM: If vaccines are really a year and a half away, which seems to be the conventional wisdom, are we back in this position next year around South by Southwest time as well?
SA: If this is a disease that has already spread in our community, then you’re not taking steps to stop the disease from spreading to your community. So it could be that the equation and the decision is very different in that hypothetical situation.
TM: There’s still going to be people this year who can’t get out of their hotels, can’t get out of their Airbnb reservations and are going to come anyway from out of town. But your assessment is …
SA: We are not shutting down the city.
TM: And we should go out and do our thing?
SA: This is still a safe city. I’m still going out to eat dinner. Eventually the virus will get to us. We need to do what we can to mitigate that and be prepared for it. The health officer described it as kind of like having a hurricane in the Gulf: we could see the storm clouds now forming above us, and we needed to make sure we were getting prepared. That’s what we needed to be doing. But we have not closed the airport. We have not shut down the city. And there’s no reason for people not to gather in our town.
TM: You’ve seen the clip of the mayor from Jaws?
SA: I’ve seen that meme, yes.
TM: That would be the worst, to be that guy.
SA: It would definitely be the worst to be that guy.