The South by Southwest festival, an iconic Austin event that 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 declared a local disaster Friday that will prevent the event from taking place, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said at a news conference, even though there have been no confirmed cases of the virus in the Austin area.
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.
Officials of SXSW, a private company, described themselves as “devastated” by the development.
“This is the first time in 34 years that the March event will not take place,” the company said in a written statement. “We are now working through the ramifications of this unprecedented situation.”
Cancellation delivers 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 annual conference.
It also could be a big financial blow for SXSW itself, depending on its insurance coverage and how it opts to handle possible requests for refunds. The city’s disaster declaration might help SXSW from an insurance perspective, however, because standard cancellation policies for special events typically provide coverage only if a cancellation is involuntary, according to insurance experts.
For the broader Austin metro area, the decision to scrap the event is a negative economically but not a huge one. A report commissioned by SXSW last year pegged the economic impact of the 2019 festival at about $356 million — which would equate to about a quarter of 1% of the region’s estimated $150 billion annual economy.
SXSW officials didn’t address possible refunds in its written statement Friday. “We are exploring options to reschedule the event and are working to provide a virtual SXSW online experience as soon as possible for 2020 participants,” it said.
“For our registrants, clients and participants, we will be in touch as soon as possible and will publish an FAQ,” it said.
The city’s disaster declaration Friday that effectively cancels the event comes at the end of a week in which SXSW resisted doing so itself, 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 previously backed SXSW’s decision to press on, saying nixing the festival wouldn’t make the city any safer from the virus.
But Dr. Mark Escott, interim medical director and health authority for Austin Public Health, said Friday that there now is evidence that allowing SXSW to take place could accelerate the spread of coronavirus.
The origin of travelers to the conference from around the world was a key concern and one that Austin Public Health couldn’t mitigate, Escott said, because many of them would have had to be placed under quarantine upon arrival.
Still, he stressed that there have been no confirmed cases yet in the Austin area. The first test of virus in a Travis County patient has come back negative, he said, although more tests have been sent out.
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 Change.org describing SXSW as “irresponsible amid an outbreak” and requesting that it be canceled this year had garnered about 55,000 signatures at last check.