How and Why the City and County Chose to Cancel SXSW

Striking precarious, if unachievable, balance between protecting public health and avoiding economic calamity

City Manager Spencer Cronk and Mayor Steve Adler receive a COVID-19 briefing at City Hall on Tuesday, March 10. (Photo by John Anderson)

By noon on Friday, March 6, Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt knew that South by Southwest would need to be canceled due to risk of spreading the novel coronavirus into Austin and Travis County. In the days leading up to the decision to cancel the festivals and conference – which has never happened in the 34-year history of SXSW – the advice Adler and Eckhardt were receiving from the panel of local health advisors tasked with tracking the growth of the virus nationally was rapidly evolving.

“There will be real pain out there as people lose their jobs or income during this time, so we have to do everything we can to help them out.” – Austin Mayor Steve Adler

Just two days earlier, in the same room where Adler would later announce the cancellation of SXSW, interim Austin Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott stood before the cameras and said, "Right now, there's no evidence that closing SXSW or any other gatherings will make the community safer." The use of "right now" is key, because as more cases of COVID-19 were confirmed around the world and local transmission of the virus – that is, confirmed cases that originate in the same region they are reported and not from someone who has traveled or who has come into contact with someone who has traveled recently – increased throughout the United States, the risk of allowing SXSW to proceed also grew.

"When the decision was made on Friday to cancel, we were having numerous conversations on what to do before then," Adler told the Chronicle. "The press conferences were just public facing points in time. There were hours of thought and discussion on the subject between those points."

Eckhardt, who stepped down from her position as Travis County Judge on Tuesday to enter the race to succeed Kirk Watson in the Texas Senate, told us, "It's a little bit like building an airplane while you're airborne," referring to the behind-the-scenes discussions informing the decision to cancel SXSW – and what future discussions might look like if further restrictions on public gatherings in Austin are needed once the virus reaches our community. "It is a rapidly evolving circumstance, and we want to ensure to the greatest extent possible [that] our decisions are based on facts rather than panic."

An Entire Nation At Risk

The desire from elected officials to avoid arousing panic when it is not warranted is rooted in the precarious balance they must strike between protecting public health and avoiding economic calamity. Neither goal will be fully achieved – the spread of the coronavirus to densely populated regions is inevitable, and the "social distancing" measures that health officials recommend to mitigate the spread of the disease inherently have a negative impact on local economies. But the goal, for now, is to delay the spread of the virus into communities where local transmission is not occurring for as long as possible.

At a City Council work session on Tuesday, March 10, Escott explained the complexity involved in deciding to cancel SXSW. He highlighted the risks that canceling the event could – and will – have for the community. People across numerous industries throughout the entire city, not to mention those who travel to Austin during the nine-day festival for employment opportunity, will lose income and jobs. That will make it more difficult for them to access health care in the months ahead, when the COVID-19 problem is likely to be even worse across America.

The cancellation of SXSW also represents a lost opportunity to message to massive numbers of people how to effectively mitigate the spread of the virus. Posters imploring people to wash their hands frequently, for at least 20 seconds, would have been plastered on walls all over Downtown, helping to drill into locals and visitors alike the important role that we as individuals play in slowing the spread of the virus.

There was good reason to keep the show going, and the decision on whether to cancel was delayed while the health advisory panel got more information from SXSW organizers while they tracked the spread of the virus globally. Where would most SXSW attendees come from? Would they mostly be in indoor or outdoor venues? Could lines be managed in a way that would limit close-contact interaction?

"Ultimately," Escott said, "through the discussions with the panel and with [SXSW], we could not identify a safe path forward that would minimize the risk enough to the community." He further explained how an event like SXSW – which drew 417,400 people from 106 countries to Austin in 2019 – could strain the fragile state of the entire nation's capacity to provide health care to those falling ill from the virus.

How Shows Can Go On

If a surge in medical need occurs in Austin, health care professionals can call on resources from other major Texas cities; likewise, if several of the big cities in Texas were experiencing a viral outbreak, resources from other states could be called upon. But when those redundancies fail because multiple large cities in multiple states throughout the country are combating surges in medical need, the potential for an event like SXSW to not only increase the spread of the virus in our community but to cause the people traveling here to become infected and take it back to their communities becomes even more of a risk. "Events like [SXSW] have the potential to create a ripple effect across communities across the state of Texas, and across the United States," Escott explained.

If an event like SXSW required cancellation, and if organizers with MotoGP decided to postpone this year's race from April 3-5 to Nov. 13-15, why then are other mass gatherings around the city such as UT sports events, concerts (such as the Post Malone show Tuesday night at the Frank Erwin Center), and Rodeo Austin allowed to continue? There are several reasons, outlined in greater detail by Austin and Travis County on Monday, March 9.

As part of the local disaster declaration, events planned from now until May 1 that are expected to bring together more than 2,500 attendees will undergo a specialized screening process. If a permit from the City has already been granted, it could be revoked; if one is being sought, it could be denied. Unless event organizers "can assure Austin Public Health that mitigation plans for infectious diseases are in place," per the mass-gathering guidelines, the event is likely to be canceled.

What APH is looking for includes a detailed list of where attendees are coming from (if a substantial number are coming from places where local transmission is occurring, an event is more likely to be canceled); how many handwashing stations will be available at the event; the approximate age of most attendees of the event (people older than 65 are more vulnerable to the coronavirus); how will organizers be able to "isolate, manage, and address the needs of people who are ill" on-site; and a range of other criteria.

APH Director Dr. Stephanie Hayden and Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott brief council members, including Greg Casar (background) (Photo by John Anderson)
“Events like [SXSW] have the potential to create a ripple effect across communities across the state of Texas, and across the United States.” – Austin Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott

In the case of Rodeo Austin, Eckhardt told us that organizers provided APH with data on attendees from previous years that showed most people coming to Travis County for the event were from other parts of Texas, and there have not been any reported cases of local transmission across the state (yet), meaning rodeo visitors pose less of a risk to our community. On Tuesday, APH Director Stephanie Hayden and other health officials toured the grounds of the event, held at the Travis County Expo Center, and gave event organizers the green light.

Rodeo Austin issued a statement Tuesday evening outlining some of the added public health measures they have implemented. "During our events," the statement reads, "Rodeo Austin has Chief of EMS, Chief of Security, and Chief of Safety onsite 24/7, along with their teams of professionals." Organizers have also taken additional steps to "increase public information, health awareness and sanitation measures throughout the event," according to the statement. The rodeo is set to begin on March 14 and run through March 28.

Sick Days, Sleepless Nights

But these decisions will remain fluid. As Escott pointed out: "As the situation evolves, our guidance is going to have to evolve as well." A key consideration for event organizers going forward is how adaptable they will be to the ever-evolving risk factor that the virus poses. "If we get evidence locally at some stage that we have person-to-person spread in the community, how are you going to message your attendees? What options do you have to further mitigate that threat based upon what's happening?"

As an illustration of how public policy will need to respond rapidly to changing COVID-19 circumstances, consider the unfolding situation in Washington state. There, on Wednesday, March 11, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people in the state's three largest counties – a cap one-tenth the size of that in Austin. The first case in the Seattle area was only confirmed on Jan. 20, less than two months ago.

What can policymakers do to mitigate the spread of the virus, and to help those who will have their health and financial stability affected by it? Escott offered a clear answer to the first issue in no uncertain terms: provide paid sick days to all workers, at the federal level, please. "It is absolutely critical that there are no barriers to going home when [workers are] sick," Escott told Council. "The ability to take off time for work is absolutely critical at this stage. In situations like this where we are trying to manage outbreak ... it is absolutely critical."

Did you catch how critical the health authority thinks paid sick leave is? Council Member Greg Casar sure did, and he swiftly called on the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to drop – even if just temporarily – their lawsuit against the city of Austin to overturn the ordinance Casar championed that would guarantee sick time to some 87,000 Austin workers. Council approved the paid sick days ordinance more than two years ago, but it has not been implemented due to the lawsuit. If the city had been able to implement it, workers in Austin would have accrued one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours of work (capped at a eight total days of sick time, or six days at businesses with 15 or fewer employees). The A.G.'s Office declined to comment, but TPPF General Counsel Robert Henneke characterized the plea from Casar as "fear mongering and an attempt to create public panic in support of an unconstitutional policy." (The Trump-appointed U.S. surgeon general tweeted the importance of paid sick leave policies to fighting the spread of the virus, it should be noted.) Henneke said policy makers should just let business owners implement sick leave policies on their own; to do otherwise "is an emotional argument aimed to create fear in support of taking away the rights of employers and employees."

If mandatory paid sick days are still a pipe dream in Texas, what local leaders can do now is still being worked out. Adler, Eckhardt, and outgoing state Sen. Kirk Watson have all lent their political star power to a fundraising campaign through the Austin Community Foundation to help the small businesses and individuals impacted by the cancellation of SXSW who are "least able to recover on their own."

A "community advisory board" will be appointed to distribute the funds at a yet-to-be-determined point in time, but as a FAQ page on the foundation's website makes clear, the fundraising drive is not going to be enough. "The fund will not raise or distribute anything near the potential economic loss associated with the cancellation of SXSW so it will be impossible to provide relief to all that need it or at levels equal to losses sustained."

At the Council work session, CM Jimmy Flannigan said the focus of the Austin community needs to be on doing more to provide financial security for those in vulnerable industries than just "shopping local." Although important, and a point of pride in Austin, he said, "I want to be involved in a much deeper conversation" on potential solutions. "This is a really important conversation not just for the folks that own the venues but for the folks that work at the venues, the folks that play the venues."

Whatever those solutions look like, Adler is aware that they will be badly needed – and soon. "I feel like [canceling SXSW] was the right thing to do for the health and safety of the community," the mayor told us. "I'm also well aware of the hardship this decision is going to cause to a lot of people. There will be real pain out there as people lose their jobs or income during this time, so we have to do everything we can to help them out."

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coronavirus, COVID-19, Austin Public Health, Steve Adler, Sarah Eckhardt, South by Southwest, SXSW, 2020 SXSW, 2020 SXSW cancellation, Mark Escott, City Council, MotoGP, Rodeo Austin, Greg Casar, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Ken Paxton, Kirk Watson, Austin Community Foundation, paid sick leave

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