SXSW, the annual tech, music, and film meetup held in downtown Austin, is the latest major conference to be canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak, and just one week before it was slated to start. It is the first time in the event’s 34-year history that it’s been canceled. The festival was scheduled to take place from March 13th to March 22nd, yet Austin Mayor Steve Adler today announced that, amid a increasing number of high-profile speaker and company withdrawals and growing public health concerns, the festival will no longer be taking place.
“I’v issued an order that effectively cancels South by Southwest,” Adler said. The decision will almost certainly be a harsh blow to the city’s economy, as SXSW brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism, ticket sales, and other revenue streams every year. Last year, the festival made $355.9 million for the city of Austin, SXSW said in November of last year.
SXSW organizers made clear in a statement issued on Twitter that this was a decision made by Austin city officials and out of the hands of the company that organizes the festival. Yet the festival may end up taking place in some form or another later this year. “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, starting with SXSW EDU,” reads the full cancellation note on the SXSW website.
For weeks leading up to the event, there were growing concerns about whether it was a smart decision for Austin leaders and the festival organizers to host SXSW, which brings nearly half a million people to a concentrated section of the Texas city’s downtown. The situation became more complicated as US coronavirus cases began spiking in Washington state, where there have so far been 11 reported deaths, and rapidly spreading to other parts of the country, including California and New York.
A petition on the website Change.org calling for the event’s cancellation amassed more than 42,000 signatures, and high-profile speakers like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey pulled out ahead of the announcement. Amazon, Apple, and Netflix all said they would no longer premiere new film and TV projects at the show, and countless companies — including tech firms Facebook, TikTok, LinkedIn, and Intel and news organizations like CNN and Mashable — also withdrew from having official, on-the-ground presences at the festival.
All cited health concerns and internal company policy related to non-essential travel restrictions put in place to help reduce employee risk. Some notable attendees had announced that they wouldn’t be attending the show, either, including entrepreneur and author Tim Ferriss and musicians like the Beastie Boys, Ozzy Osbourne, and Trent Rezor. Yesterday, Variety reported that the three major music groups — Sony, Universal, and Warner Music — have advised employees not to travel to the festival.
As of Monday, the SXSW organizers said the event would proceed as normal. “As a result of this dialogue and the recommendations of Austin Public Health, the 2020 event is proceeding with safety as a top priority,” the organizers said in a statement given to USA Today. “There is a lot about COVID-19 that is still unknown, but what we do know is that personal hygiene is of critical importance. We hope that people follow the science, implement the recommendations of public health agencies, and continue to participate in the activities that make our world connected. That’s our plan.”
The company also shared a statement on Twitter the same day echoing its commitment to hold the event and linking to a webpage featuring the festival’s preparations for the event and an FAQ detailing its responses to various public concerns.
On Tuesday, the conference even announced additional keynote speakers, including actors Chris Evans and Kumail Nanjiani.
SXSW is just the latest industry conference to get postponed or cancelled due to concerns of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The Game Developers Conference, Mobile World Congress, Facebook’s F8 developer conference, Google’s Cloud Next conference and I/O developer conference, and countless other events have been similarly effected, with organizers either postponing the physical meetups, transitioning to “virtual” events held online and through videoconference, or cancelling events outright.