Businesses along Sixth Street in Austin benefit from the swell of foot traffic during SXSW. Michael Buckner/Getty Images

For Austin Mayor Steven Adler, the decision to call off the Texas capital’s signature music and film festival due to COVID-19 fears wasn’t an easy one.

On Friday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced the cancellation of South by Southwest, a two-week film and music festival that brings thousands of visitors to the city — and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

As global alarm over the coronavirus outbreak grew, Adler’s decision went from “largely unthinkable to increasingly inescapable,” as Texas Monthly wrote. Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt declared a “local state of disaster” on Friday, giving public health officials the authority to review mass public events and decide whether they should proceed. Under these powers, officials announced that SXSW wouldn’t go forward. Residents of Austin were unnerved by the news, since the festival pumps millions into local venues, restaurants, and service industry workers’ pockets.

The jet-setter’s spring calendar is starting to look pinched. Austin’s signature mega-event joins a growing list of festivals, conferences, and municipal happenings that aren’t happening, both in cities that are currently struggling with COVID-19 cases and those that are simply bracing for the disease. Scientific organizations planning events in San Diego have canceled three conferences there so far, for example. Facebook, Google and Microsoft all scrapped their annual conferences for developers. The year’s biggest events for smartphone makers and videogame developers are off.

Meanwhile, other cities are proceeding with their plans: While Tokyo curtailed its marathon and Paris postponed its race, for now the Boston Marathon is still a go. How do cities weigh the risks of keeping conference centers and expo halls open as the virus charts its uncertain course? CityLab talked with Adler about how the city arrived at this costly decision — and what happens next.

Who made the decision to cancel SXSW?

Ultimately, the declaration of disaster that I signed [with Eckhardt] was based on the advice and concurrence of public health officials, the public health director, and city manager.

What was the festival’s response?

South-by, throughout the process — and this has been a continuing conversation here for the last two or three weeks — South-by’s position all along was they would honor and accommodate the position of the city, based on health concerns.

When did this conversation first start happening in Austin? As you and other city officials were monitoring this outbreak, when did it start to occur to you and others in conversation that this [coronavirus] was a looming threat for the city, and this festival?

In earnest, a couple weeks ago it became a greater possibility. That changed over time as more and more information was obtained. This is a discussion that is ongoing and it’s a conversation that is happening every day. Medical officers formed the advisory panel a week before the decision was made. That’s a panel made up of representatives from the three major health systems in Central Texas, the top infectious disease physicians at the Dell Medical School, and public health professionals in Central Texas. It was constantly being reevaluated.

How many cases have been detected in Austin at this time?

We don’t have any cases detected in Austin at this time.

How many tests is Austin performing at this time?

That number hasn’t been released, because we’re not releasing negative results. There’s been one or two confirmed cases of testing, but with negative results. We’re not going to keep identifying the number of negative tests that were given.

Live entertainment and big events are part of the lifeblood of Austin. Is the city looking at canceling any future events on the calendar?

No, and understand, this wasn’t just because it was a big event. This [SXSW] was ultimately canceled because it was a big event with multiple contained and closed venues, with large numbers of people coming from cities with person-to-person spread of the virus. Quite frankly, there was no time to properly mitigate.

At the same time this was canceled, the University of Texas basketball games are not being canceled. The rodeo, which draws primarily from Texas and has a lot of outdoor venues, is not being canceled. It’s a mix of factors that led to the canceling of South-by.

People are projecting a lot of lost sales because of the SXSW cancelation. For vendors, restaurant owners, restaurant staff, bartenders, hotel staff, and other workers in the service industry, this will be a big shock. What is the city telling people who are looking at a personal economic blow from this?

It is a shock. It’s horrible. There are people really hurting from this. The city has to mitigate this as best as we can and be as resilient as we can. There are a lot of funds that have been creating and started. There’s one with the Austin Community Foundation.

It’s certainly not going to make people whole. We’re not going to raise $350 million. The city is looking to see what we can do, as are philanthropists and social service organizations and others in the city. We’re lucky and fortunate in Austin that our economy is not dependent on one event. But the canceling of this one event is going to hurt.

Is that the projected cost or shortfall from canceling SXSW?

$350 million is what the estimated economic impact was last year. We were anticipating a similar impact this year. The ultimate impact, we’re not sure what it’s going to be. The city is not shutting down. There are still going to be people going to clubs and restaurants. Certainly there’s going to be real economic injury.

Are people still going to clubs and restaurants right now? Have you noticed or has there been reported any change in behavior?

My hope is that people who are more susceptible — older people, people with compromised immune systems — are staying away from crowds. That would seem to be the prudent thing to do. We don’t have a reported person-to-person spread yet. We’re still encouraging people to go out to eat and go to clubs. People are still doing that. We’re asking people to take extra precautions. Wash their hands more. Don’t go out if they’re not feeling well. We’re urging people to elbow bump rather than shake hands. These are the things that the data indicate slows the spread of the disease.

As this is playing out, your city has been in a protracted battle with the governor’s office over people experiencing homelessness in Austin. What can the city do to help protect vulnerable populations in the event of an outbreak? Is that conversation between your office and the governor’s office changing at all because of this disaster declaration?

The city is looking to see what it can do right now to help harden and support the locations that have folks who are most vulnerable. That’d be senior centers and nursing homes as well as encampments and other places where people who are experiencing homelessness are gathering. You can control better the environment in a closed facility like a nursing home. It’s more difficult where people experiencing homelessness are gathering. But we are looking to see what we can do there in terms of helping to provide additional facilities for people to wash their hands. Better monitoring from a medical standpoint so we can catch people who might become ill. This concern about the most vulnerable is something that Austin shares with cities across the world.

There are changes imminent to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. As of April 1, it’s going to change the eligibility for some people who are using food stamps through SNAP. Is this change to SNAP going to exacerbate the coronavirus crisis?

I’m concerned about the virus at lots of different levels and the interplay with a lot of federal programs — federal programs that have been cut and might be cut in the future. All of these things are concerns. The degree to which they [the federal government] are compromising the safety net for people, for anybody who lives in the city, makes the entire city more at risk.

Do you feel that Austin is getting the support it needs from the federal government or state government in terms of health supplies, tests and whatever it needs to try to contain the spread of this virus?

There wasn’t a lot of guidance coming from the federal government, from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, with respect to what we should do or not do about big events like South-by. The governor has increased the amount of testing equipment that’s available, in Austin and around the state, and that’s a good element. I can’t think of anything in particular that we wish we had that we’re not getting — other than better direction. That would be great. At this point we don’t have a run on supplies, and we don’t have a reported case yet.

How is monitoring the response affecting your job?

Everyone is concerned about the virus. We’re all looking at it, knowing that it’s a question of time. It’s not whether or not it’s going to spread to our city — it’s when it spreads to our city.

Everybody’s trying to take steps to help ensure that we’re doing everything that we can do to slow its spread and be a city that is ready for its arrival. The hope is that we can slow its spread as best as we can. Hopefully get into the summer months when viruses like the flu traditionally ebb a little bit, and hope for a vaccination or better treatments. It’s coming for all cities.

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