Update 4:22 p.m: Austin mayor Steve Adler declared a state of disaster in Austin, thus canceling SXSW 2020.
Over the past several days, discussion about COVID-19’s impact–as well the potential it has in triggering the disruption or outright cancellation of next week’s global South by Southwest gathering in Austin–has escalated. (Disclaimer: Texas Monthly has partnered with SXSW to put on a performance during the conference). According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “the virus that causes COVID-19 seems to be spreading easily and sustainably”–and given that this is a respiratory disease, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that it could spread at large public gatherings like SXSW (The CDC has a resource page specifically for mass gatherings and large community events).
Some are adamant that SXSW, which draws hundreds of thousands of people for the conference and unofficial events, should be called off in the wake of the new coronavirus’s worldwide outbreak and ongoing spread. A Change.org petition calling for the festival’s cancellation has amassed more than 50,000 signatures and counting. Technology investor and podcaster Tim Ferriss called off his appearance as a keynote speaker; on Twitter, he urged Austin mayor Steve Adler and administrators to “carefully evaluate the downsides,” adding that “SXSW brings huge economic benefit to Austin, but possibly making Austin a hotspot for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19, and the emergency actions + funding that would require, could make a huge event seem shortsighted.” Ferriss’s pullout this week follows announcements from Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, TikTok, Intel, and Mashable that they’d be canceling their respective events and not sending employees to SXSW.
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On Wednesday, Amazon Studios and Amazon Prime Video also shut down their SXSW events; additionally, the Austin American-Statesman reports that Amazon’s audiobook platform Audible, a “major conference sponsor” of the festival, was no longer on the SXSW schedule. (On SXSW’s site, they’re still listed as major sponsors). That same day, organizers of The Latinx House—who host two days of parties, brunches, and panels elevating Latinx culture—announced that they wouldn’t be participating. The Hollywood Reporter broke news that Apple too will skip SXSW, in turn canceling several premieres scheduled for the fest, including Spike Jonze’s Beastie Boys Story. And on Thursday, Warner Media, which includes CNN and HBO, announced that they were out–as well as the Austin-based incubator Capital Factory.
SXSW has signaled that it’s “proceeding as planned”while following Austin Public Health’s recommendations. At a press conference on Wednesday morning, Dr. Mark Escott, Austin Public Health’s interim director, said: “There is no evidence that closing SXSW is going to make the community safer,” but also that if new evidence to the contrary were to emerge, they’d reevaluate. Online, city officials have stated that “the overall risk of COVID-19 in the United States to the general public remains low at this time,” but “one or more individuals” are currently being tested for the virus in Travis County. Escott also said an advisory panel of doctors and infectious diseases experts had met to discuss the potential risks with large public gatherings, and they were working with SXSW on mitigation strategies.
For the moment, SXSW has also continued to announce new programming, including a politics track and high-profile conversations with the likes of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On Wednesday afternoon, SXSW announced its Comedy Festival lineup, which includes appearances from Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson and comedian Hannibal Buress.
Meanwhile, other conferences have decided to put their gatherings on hold. Adweek noted that a TED2020 conference scheduled for April 20–24 in Vancouver will either be postponed until July or be held as a “digital-only gathering.” Las Vegas—the crown jewel of the convention business in the U.S.—also saw cancellations from both the White House and Google for their March conferences. In San Antonio, where the bulk of Texas’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the new coronavirus) are thus far, is still moving forward with the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference this week, though authors and publishers alike have been dropping out.
It’s not clear how many cancellations would make SXSW entirely unsustainable. Or maybe it already has? But there’s also the matter of optics concerning a ten-day festival that hosts thousands of people from all over the world. A week out from SXSW’s start, it’s too soon for anybody to making a call—something administrators echoed this week at the press conference. “If [health administrators] make a recommendation that SXSW should be closed, I understand SXSW will close it and then we will move forward,” said Adler.
Although the Austin mayor insists the ultimate call will be based on public health considerations, the debate over SXSW 2020 doesn’t just concern well-being. A potential cancellation also stands to significantly affect Austin’s convention ecosystem, the hotel industry, local tech and arts communities, nonprofits, the culinary scene, and many ancillary businesses counting on the festival bump to carry them through the year.
Given what we know so far, and from my experience covering and participating in SXSW, here’s what I see as the three preeminent options for how this all plays out (though these aren’t the only options, of course):
1. Business As Usual
This option may have already passed its sell-by date. In the past few days alone, there have already been too many big-name cancellations for SXSW to feel anything remotely like a business-as-usual festival. And the cancellations aren’t just leaving gaps in SXSW official programming, but also in the lineup of events, activations, and parties that comprise a core part of the experience.
SXSW has been mum about its plans and has not publicly reacted to any cancellations. But on SXSW’s official page for coronavirus-related information, which hasn’t been updated since Tuesday, the first question on the FAQ is preceded by the declaration: “We are proceeding with the 2020 event with the health and safety of our attendees, staff, and volunteers as our top priority.”
One major issue with the business as usual option—and presumably a factor baked into some of the cancellations so far—involves the possibility of liability. Information about the overall threat level for community spread, the exact number of cases, and spread patterns in the U.S. is still nebulous. But there’s likely enough scientifically grounded and publicly available information out there about potential risks to determine that if SXSW went on “as planned” and the worst happened, there would likely be litigation—aimed not just at SXSW itself, but also toward the city of Austin, the state of Texas, sponsors hosting activations, and perhaps even individual businesses perceived to be negligent in mitigating risk.
What’s more, a business as usual SXSW–particularly with a sort of “nothing to see here” vibe–wouldn’t be great for optics. No matter how transparent SXSW itself might be about the decision-making that went into moving forward with the event, it’s hard to imagine that would be enough to bat against the backlash. “Business as usual” could be read as SXSW, the city, and the state consciously choosing to prioritize profits and economic viability over public health and community safety.
Tellingly, at the Wednesday press conference on COVID-19, Adler reiterated that the decision for SXSW to continue as planned for the time being was not a decision the festival had a hand in. “I want the community to know these decisions are being made by our medical professionals and that no corporation or South By or anyone else has a seat at that table,” the mayor said. “We’re only motivated by making sure that we do what we can to keep the community safe.”
2. A Significantly Scaled-Back SXSW
If the city can’t determine with absolute certainty that SXSW poses a public health threat, each person participating in it, as with the AWP conference, will likely have to decide what they’re comfortable with. At this point, the growing number of cancellations render “business as usual” almost a moot point. But the scale-it-back option is also surrounded by the most guesswork. Cutting the number of days SXSW stretches across, offering full refunds and/or helping cover costs of sponsors, venues, and planners choosing not to participate, could be options on the table if this were to happen. There are also probably ways that much of SXSW programming could be livestreamed in front of small audiences, or no audiences at all.
It’s possible that a plan is already in motion to decrease capacity at some of the festival’s largest events. At the press conference, Escott warned: “Some venues are going to be lower risk than other venues. As the crowds grow and the people get closer together, the risk is going to increase for transmission of COVID-19 potentially and certainly influenza because we’re still in the midst of a significant influenza season.”
It’s not clear if a scaled-back SXSW would even work or be sustainable, either. After a rash of SXSW party cancellations, and the high rental fees and big bar tabs that come with them, music venues around the city would no doubt feel the blow. Would venues, and other people whose livelihoods depend on the SXSW shadow economy, see anything near what they would’ve if SXSW happens in a piecemeal way instead of being outright canceled? Not likely.
Cody Cowan, the executive director for the Red River Cultural District (a group representing stakeholders and club owners in a slice of downtown that includes more than a dozen live music venues) and the GM of the music venue The Mohawk, wrote on a public Facebook post: “Without discussing ethics, working people have always worked in environments of risk. We know this better than anyone. We know the final outcome may very well be lose:lose. It’s a hard moment. But cash in pocket has better odds in outcomes than none.” He added, “many service industry folks do not have health insurance, so consequences in the event of an infection (sooner or later) will require coming out of pocket for care either way.”
The bulk of cancellations thus far are coming from companies involved in the Film and Interactive sectors of SXSW. (That makes sense, because those segments happen during the first part of the festival, and start March 13.) It’s possible the days ahead could trigger cancellations for SXSW Music, from individual bands and record labels alike. Or, given that experts would have a few more days to consider the music portion of festival’s relative safety, fewer cancellations, making for a more music-heavy SXSW. But it’s also not clear if a smaller SXSW would effectively decrease public safety risks, or lessen the impact on already overworked public health professionals.
3. SXSW Is Canceled
If city and county officials were to determine that SXSW presented too much of a public health risk to move forward, the big winner here would, of course, be Austin’s public safety, as well as the entities (including SXSW) that chose to prioritize it.
It’s important to note the chasm between so many brands, speakers and events canceling and SXSW mothership itself–either voluntarily or at the city’s request–being canceled with a capital C. One leaves holes in the programming, while the other could trigger a logistical and economic disaster.
As a practical consideration, SXSW may be too big a beast with too many moving parts to turn on a dime, especially towards a complete shutdown. Even with a cancellation, people would likely still honor travel commitments they can’t get out of or refunded, and bands would still probably perform in the area because of how their tours have been routed. It’s not hard to see how a pop-up, salvage-what-you-can unofficial festival could spring up in its wake—only without the safeguards and alert system you’d expect from the official SXSW Inc. What if canceling SXSW in the name of safety yields an even less safe, less organized not-SXSW?
That’s a fear Escott also raised at the press conference. “We’re also concerned because SXSW has been so engaged in helping us mitigate that if we shut it down people will come to this community anyway, they’re going to go to restaurants and public gatherings anyway, but we won’t have all of this,” he said. “We won’t have the messaging, we won’t have the hand sanitizer, we won’t have those additional mitigation steps that SXSW has really been partners with us on.”
If they were to move forward with canceling SXSW, city officials would likely need a consensus from the nation’s best infectious disease experts. The optics of caution, as well as the likely goodwill the city and SXSW would engender for a bountiful 2021 return, are less measurable than the cold hard losses. Still, the cancellation would probably mean local businesses closing, workforce layoffs, and an impact on everybody from rideshare drivers to service industry professionals who depend on the seasonal lift.
At this point, two existential questions loom over the to-cancel or not-to-cancel debate.
1. Some people believe that the coronavirus is going to spread anyway—so it wouldn’t make a difference to cancel SXSW. But what if Austin does, in fact, perpetuate the virus’s spread if SXSW goes on as planned?
2. What if SXSW is canceled, the local business economy is irrevocably damaged, and the community’s recovery from the epidemic, both health-wise and economically, takes even longer than the crisis itself?
If a lot of discussion driving decision-making seems like it’s calculated and economically driven, it might be because it is. This is how the business as usual and downsized SXSW options might be perceived down the line if the virus’s spread were to happen and it was directly traced to SXSW.
You can believe both that COVID-19 is dangerous and that SXSW is a $335 million ecosystem that too much of Austin has a stake in to casually dismiss. What’s going to happen is going to happen, and how we react to that is all we control. Either way, nobody is headed into this SXSW season lightly, or without a nervous heart.