South by Southwest festival canceled over virus fears

Announcement made in response to public pressure, low participation

The South by Southwest festival, an iconic Austin event that annually attracts more than 100,000 music fans, technology buffs and pop culture enthusiasts to the city’s downtown each March, has been called off this year amid growing global fears about a possible coronavirus pandemic.

The city of Austin issued an order Friday that effectively forces the cancellation of the event, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said at a news conference.

The cancellation — just seven days before the 2020 festival was scheduled to start next Friday — comes as SXSW organizers faced public pressure to scrap it, as well the prospect of a substantially diminished event anyway because a lengthy list of companies and speakers already dropped out.

The cancellation constitutes a financial hit to downtown restaurants, bars, hotels and other businesses, many of which have come to count on free-spending attendees of the sprawling yearly conference.

It also could be a big blow for SXSW itself, a private company that has held the event since 1987, depending on its insurance coverage and how it opts to handle possible requests for refunds.

For the broader Austin metro area, however, the development is much less significant, at least from an economic perspective. A report commissioned by SXSW last year pegged the economic impact of the 2019 festival at about $356 million _ which would account for about a quarter of 1% of the region’s estimated $150 billion annual economy.

The decision to call off the event marks a reversal for SXSW officials, who have spent the past week resisting appeals to do so even as coronavirus fears prompted other conferences to be shelved nationally and globally, spurred a wave of travel cancellations and fueled steep downturns in global financial markets.

Austin public health officials had backed SXSW’s decision to press on, saying nixing the festival wouldn’t make the city any safer from the virus.

But dozens of companies have bailed on the event in recent days, including high-profile names like NBC Universal, Apple, Netflix, Twitter and Intel. Many said they were doing so as part of broad discretionary travel bans they had instituted for their employees because of virus fears.

In addition, a petition on describing SXSW as “irresponsible amid an outbreak” and requesting that it be canceled this year had garnered about 55,000 signatures at last check.

By Bob Sechler, Austin American-Statesman


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