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GONE SOUTH

Facing calls to cancel, SXSW is going ahead—with fewer panels and smaller crowds

The show is going on.
  • Amrita Khalid
By Amrita Khalid

Tech reporter

Update 3/6/2020 5:15 pm ET: Austin’s city authorities announced at a press conference on Friday that it was declaring a local emergency due to the coronavirus, effectively cancelling SXSW. “There was no acceptable path forward that would mitigate the risk enough to protect our community,” said Austin’s interim health authority Dr. Mark Escott. The cancellation marks the first time in its 32-year history that SXSW will not go on as planned. 

South by Southwest (SXSW) is still going on as scheduled, despite mounting fears that the festival will be canceled due to the coronavirus.

The week-long maelstrom of music, film, and tech events that descends upon Austin, Texas every year seems to be the only large-scale event that hasn’t shuttered due to Covid-19. And SXSW is notably among the largest of large-scale events: last year, the festival drew more than 417,000 attendees, from a total of 106 countries. Fears of the outbreak have already halted much smaller events than SXSW, ranging from concerts to tech conferences to sporting events

SXSW says it is actively monitoring the situation, and the city of Austin says it has the ability to halt the festival if it feels there’s a public health risk.

Despite SXSW still proceeding as scheduled, companies are ducking out and panels have been cancelled. Tech companies, many of which have put in place their own travel restrictions for employees and canceled their own conferences, have been the first to drop out. As of yesterday, Facebook, Twitter, Vevo, Intel, Amazon Studios, Tik Tok, and Mashable have announced they will not be participating in the festival. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who was scheduled to give a speech, has canceled. Podcast titan Tim Ferriss, who was scheduled to give the keynote, has dropped out. China Gathering, which holds an opening reception and other events for Chinese companies and attendees at SXSW, has cancelled its events but will still assist individual attendees. 

Individuals are also dropping out. Alexander Taub, the CEO of Upstream, decided to cancel his travel plans because he was worried about contracting the virus. “I’ve been going for almost a decade and love it. But with the coronavirus about to go supernova – it’s just not worth it,” Taub wrote to Quartz. 

Shutting down SXSW will be a massive loss to Austin’s local economy, as Texas Monthly noted. Last year, SXSW had a $355.9 million economic impact on the city of Austin. Outside of monetary losses, the loss to the many startups, bands, and independent film products that hedge their bets on SXSW exposure is incalculable. Over 300 films are scheduled to screen at SXSW this year, many of which will be world or North American premieres. Up and coming bands often use the event to connect with booking agents or record labels. 

The refusal of SXSW to cancel has drawn some criticism. The hashtag #cancelsxsw has gained some traction on Twitter, and a Change.org petition to cancel the event has gathered more than 30,000 signatures. But that opposition is still a small fraction of the thousands of speakers, companies, and fans who still plan to make the trip to Austin.

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