New Rules on Mass Gatherings in Austin

Checklist developed to assess risk levels associated with public events

Detailed hand-washing instructions posted at the Frank Erwin Center
Detailed hand-washing instructions posted at the Frank Erwin Center (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

From now through May 1, city officials have prohibited events with 2,500 or more people unless organizers are able to assure Austin Public Health (APH) that mitigation plans for infectious diseases are in place. Each event – including special events and those held at permanently permitted venues – will be evaluated case by case.

  An evaluation checklist has been developed to assess the level of risk associated with public events. The likelihood of an event remaining prohibited increases significantly if:

• There is great likelihood for extended close personal contact.

• The crowd density of the event is high.

• There are a significant number of travelers from areas currently experiencing person-to-person spread of COVID-19 domestically and internationally.

• There are a high number of guests coming from unknown locations.

• There are insufficient mechanisms in place to isolate, manage, and address the needs of people should they become ill or an outbreak occur at the event.

• The plan to disseminate information about the need for basic hygiene practices is insufficient.  

• There is an insufficient number of toilet facilities available for the event.

• There is an insufficient number and type of handwashing and sanitizing stations available for the event.

SXSW Tries to "Stop the Bleeding"

"We have a lot of insurance (terrorism, injury, property destruction, weather)," explained South by Southwest co-founder and Managing Director Roland Swenson to a Chronicle reporter, via text, just hours after city officials canceled the conference on March 6 over COVID-19 concerns. "However, bacterial infections, communicable diseases, viruses, and pandemics are not covered."

That refuted a mess of public chatter, largely stemming from a shoddily researched recent Variety article, that SXSW would benefit from the city shutting the event down rather than canceling of its own volition because it would trigger an insurance payout. In fact, few events carry insurance that covers pandemics, which SXSW co-founder Nick Barbaro – who is also the publisher of the Chronicle – said is "prohibitively expensive."

On Monday afternoon, the SXSW organization laid off roughly 50 people, which represents about one-third of its staff. A senior employee at the organization, who only agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the layoffs and characterized the mass termination as "the only way to stop the bleeding" amid the city of Austin forcing the event into cancellation.

The terminated employees spanned multiple departments with the company and included both veteran staffers and newer hires. Anyone not working on something immediate was let go. Some people had been working there for months and others for over a decade.

Most of those let go received a small amount of severance pay and some level of continued insurance. The source allowed that they were – at this point – "hopeful" the organization would be able to orchestrate a SXSW conference next year.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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