The idea that life might be put on hold as a result of COVID-19 seemed like the stuff of paranoid fantasy even a few weeks ago, but the way we talk about the coronavirus has changed dramatically as of late. We’ve moved beyond “wash your hands and don’t touch your face” and landed at “distance yourselves from groups of people” in the span of a few days, given both the virus’s rapid spread around the world and our nation’s failure to prepare proper testing now that it’s in our own communities.
It also, of course, has massive implications for events happening in our own backyard, the people who work them, and the people who took time off work and spent money to attend said events. Last week, South by Southwest became one of the first of many high-profile international events to be called off when the City of Austin canceled the festival. The Coachella Music Festival then canceled its planned two weekends in the California desert, postponing the show until October. The Houston Rodeo canceled the rest of its calendar on Wednesday morning. The NBA and the NHL suspended their seasons later that night. The next morning, Major League Baseball announced it would be delaying Opening Day for the foreseeable future (which also means the Texas Rangers’ slick new stadium will sit unopened for a while). The NCAA, desperate to retain its biggest annual money maker, hesitated to pull back on its March Madness basketball tournament until forces outside of its control made that irrelevant. By the time the organization responded to a mandate from the state of Ohio banning crowds at home games by announcing that the tournament would be played without crowds, it was too late. The individual conferences canceled their own championship games that determine seeding, and powerhouse programs like Duke and Kansas pulled out of the event altogether.
The fallout from continued coronavirus cancellations in Texas is happening in real time. A whole lot of people who booked a room for, say, SXSW through Airbnb aren’t getting refunds, rescheduling air travel is confusing, and some folks planned their trip to visit friends and family who will still be here. The local economy, meanwhile, is taking a massive hit without the ten-day event that drives so much of the spending that happens in the city, from local restaurants to venues. Last week, doing a guide to Austin for people who were still coming to visit the city during what would have been SXSW also seemed like a decent idea: “Here’s where to go, here’s what to eat, here’s how often to wash your hands, here’s a Willie Nelson song to sing to yourself while you do it to make sure you’re scrubbing those germs off, etc.”
But we better understand how coronavirus spreads now, and we have a better idea of what happens in countries that wait too long to take action, like Italy, which is now under lockdown after more than one thousand Italian citizens have died from COVID-19. The economic stakes for a SXSW-less Austin (and its environs) are still very real, but the city is not unique in that these days: every city that’s home to a professional sports franchise, or that was expecting concert tours, or that has restaurants people are now hesitant to eat in, is suffering. Cities that now or will soon have restrictions on gatherings over a certain size (100 people, in New Mexico; 250, in New Jersey, 2,500 in Austin right now, but I’d expect to see that shrink considerably soon) are dealing with something similar. With that in mind, a list of recommendations for where to get the best tacos and BBQ while you’re partying in Austin amidst a pandemic feels like, at best, it’s failing to read the room right now.
It’s not entirely clear whether traveling is a bad idea right now, either. Epidemiologists don’t necessarily seem to think being on an airplane is more risky than, say, going to the supermarket—but the reason we’re seeing large events canceled is that encouraging people to stay home is how we flatten the curve of outbreaks to avoid overwhelming an already strained health care system. Visiting Austin right now, and then popping into the restaurants struggling to make ends meet amid coronavirus might be an acceptable thing to do—but it might also be harmful. How do you tell people to go out and just live their lives right now?
Right now, locals in Austin are rallying around the businesses and music venues that are taking a hit from the canceled SXSW events with various fund-raising efforts. And bands that are on the road anyway—many of whose members took time off work to go on tour and can’t afford to go back home right now—are going to be playing in Austin, bringing a can-do spirit to venues whose ability to keep the lights on hinges on being full over the next two weekends. The Red River Cultural District is still listing shows on its website, with the punk rock mantra of “Rise Above, We Gotta Rise Above” emblazoned above the names of participants, including major concert promoters C3 and Margin Walker, along with venues like Stubb’s and Mohawk Austin, all trying to salvage something out of the SXSW wreckage.
But we aren’t rising above corporate suits who are trying to kill the fun, or a city that’s trying to outlaw live music. This isn’t Flashdance—it’s a global pandemic response, and pointing to any of the live music lineups right now (even—maybe especially!—the good ones) could end up just putting more people at risk. What if we recommend a place or show that ends up being a vector for COVID-19? Are we supposed to rise above the spread of disease because in the spirit of music and joy and unity? Is that even possible?
Right now, there aren’t any easy answers to any of this. The world is still spinning. In our best-case scenario, the disease doesn’t spread, all of this ends up feeling overhyped, and there’ll be an ongoing argument over whether we overreacted to the coronavirus outbreak of 2020, or whether the abundance-of-caution organizations from SXSW to the Houston Rodeo to the NBA to Major League Baseball are demonstrating why the disease seemed to die down after all of the panic. In our worst-case scenarios, questions like that will probably seem ridiculous in hindsight.
Amid all of this, I spotted one bright spot in the Austin’s entertainment landscape that felt like it demonstrated the best of the city’s community, novel coronavirus or no: the Blue Starlite, a tiny independent drive-in theater in Austin, announced an evening of short film programming, featuring a series of premieres that were slated to occur at SXSW. Filmmakers will get an event to attend and a big-screen premiere for their films, while the audience will be able to practice social distancing, watching the whole thing from their cars. It’s not something you can repeat everywhere, but it’s an example of a do-it-yourself spirit of creativity and innovation, combined with the need to keep people safe in a time where the most vulnerable among us can suffer because of bad decisions.
If we see that spirit in other places around the country, as events large and small are canceled, then maybe in a few weeks it’ll be possible to write a “where to go and what to do” guide that feels appropriate for the serious times we’re living in.