Officials in the state capital declared a disaster late Friday due to fears of the coronavirus, essentially canceling the South by Southwest festival, but for some the show may still go on.
Mayor Steve Adler declared the emergency shutdown Friday after consulting with local health officials concerned that the deadly illness could be spread to central Texas by attendees from the West Coast.
But the 10-day festival that was due to start March 13, known here simply as “South By,” is a major engine of the creative economy. And some of those heavily invested said they do not intend to change their plans.
“We live and die by South By,” said Rob Hicks, 40, owner of the Dirty Dog Bar on Sixth Street.
In December, he said, the building was sold, and the new landlord raised the rent 88%. He stayed because of South by Southwest, also known as SXSW, spending about $6,000 on marketing and promotions.
“I’m still going to host all my shows. I booked 120 bands. None of them canceled,” he said.
SXSW launched in 1987 as a music festival but grew to include film and tech. This year’s festival was scheduled for March 13-22, with the music component due to start March 16.
The festival was to feature a keynote speech by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, the premiere of a Beastie Boys documentary, director Judd Apatow interviewing Stephen Colbert and Kim Kardashian West discussing her criminal justice work. But in recent days, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and other tech companies withdrew. And an online petition begun by Austinites to cancel the festival due to the coronavirus was signed by more than 55,000 people, although, as of yet, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in Austin or surrounding Travis County.
Shayla Lee, the Austinite who launched the petition, said Saturday: “I understand that many are disappointed about the cancellation for various reasons, but in the end it’s for the greater good.
“It’s better to prevent than try to fix,” she continued. “I understand that many will still travel to Austin despite SXSW being canceled, and that we are still at risk ... but the amount of people who would’ve been coming here has gone down drastically, and I do believe that will make a difference. I would tell those who plan on attending: Do your research. Keep in mind that the virus can be asymptomatic. Keep the incubation period in mind, and take extreme precaution while in crowds.”
Some music fans said the cancellation could reduce SXSW to its local, musical roots.
“I’m liking that better, because it kind of lost its identity,” said Alan Barnette, owner of a shop on Austin’s South Congress Street hipster corridor called Prima Dora.
Barnette, 58, went to see a ska band late Friday at a show that drew about 200 people.
“They can’t go to these bars and say you can’t have music,” he said.
Tourists milling on South Congress on this non-festival weekend said they had come from San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.
“People still have flights and hotels booked. They’re all going to be here, so it’s a free-for-all,” said Duece King, 38, as he guarded the door to Lit Lounge on Sixth Street, the heart of the downtown district that benefits from SXSW.
Hours after the mayor’s announcement, King said the bar had not canceled any bands booked for the festival.
Last year, South by Southwest drew 417,000 people, 159,000 for the music events alone, bringing in about $350 million in revenue. Passes to official festival events purchased in advance ranged from $825 to $1,550, and it wasn’t clear from a SXSW statement Friday whether they would be refunded.
Several Sixth Street bars, restaurants and clothing shops have already spent a lot on staffing and supplies. Some renovated. Even pedicab drivers said they had spent money tricking out their bikes with new paint, lights and sound systems.
“We ordered a huge truck of merchandise for South By that comes in next week, just like all these restaurants ordered liquor and food. What are we supposed to do?” said Michelle Fabian, 40, a clerk working a late shif at Sixth Street Trading Company souvenir shop Friday.
In a statement late Friday, SXSW officials said, “‘The show must go on’ is in our DNA. … However, this situation evolved rapidly, and we honor and respect the city of Austin’s decision.” They did not speak at a city news conference Friday or return requests for an interview Saturday.
On Sixth Street late Friday, some questioned why city officials canceled the festiva, but not the Austin rodeo scheduled to start March 14 or the MotoGP Formula One race April 5. This weekend, they also pointed out, the University of Texas at Austin men and women’s basketball teams were still scheduled to play their final games of the season.
Adler on Saturday said Austin officials were evaluating whether other events in the city should go forward, including unofficial SXSW events. He said public health officials would issue guidance about ways to mitigate the risk of spreading the coronavirus, such as added hand sanitizers and decreased capacity.
But, he said, “the goal is not to have the same people who were coming to South By go to other events.”
SXSW coincides with spring break for UT Austin and other schools, and some Austinites questioned why the city made its announcement.
“They’re costing everybody here a lot of money,” said Todd Achee as he sat smoking late Friday in a straw cowboy hat and leather biker vest outside the Dirty Dog Bar.
Achee, 56, said Adler should not have bowed to pressure to cancel the festival. He said he had worked at SXSW in years past and knows many service workers who count on the added tips and shifts. “They have families to support,” he said.
Some on Sixth Street on Friday night joked about the coronavirus when they sneezed; others were careful to fist bump rather than shake hands.
Hicks, the Dirty Dog’s owner, said he now has to decide by Thursday how much food and drink to order for the period when the festival had been scheduled.
“I don’t know how to forecast. … I just don’t know how the cancellation is going to impact attendance,” he said.
Hicks expected crowds of music fans will still descend on the city and said he worries about security.
“South By was regulating everything. There’s still going to be a ton of people coming here — but who’s in charge?” Hicks said.
A rise in crime this year has left many downtown worried about security.
“I’m more worried about getting stabbed by a homeless person than I am about coronavirus,” Hicks said.
Police, he said, have assured him they still planned to install street barricades downtown and to patrol the area as they would have during the festival.
“I hope that’s the case,” he said.
A dozen patrol officers were out on Sixth Street late Friday on foot and horseback. Past midnight, the strip of bars was still crowded with couples, tourists, bachelorettes in veils and students in orange UT sweatshirts.
The crowd reaffirmed Angela Tharp’s determination to see the music portion of SXSW continue this year. Standing outside the 29-year-old bar she owns, Flamingo Cantina, she dismissed coronavirus fears as “hysteria.” She was running a special on Corona beer as a joke.
“People are still going to go out. I mean, look at the street now,” she said, gesturing to the stream of passersby.
She headed inside, where several dozen people were nodding along with the lead singer of Los Kurados, a reggae/ska band. Tharp was gearing up. She had other bands booked, a private party to plan for and an ice machine to buy.
“The people are still coming,” she said. “Get ready, mayor.”