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Inside the Situation Room: How Austin Officials Decided to Cancel SXSW

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Inside the Situation Room: How Austin Officials Decided to Cancel SXSW

At 11:18 Friday morning, after several days of back-and-forth about whether to cancel South by Southwest, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt was returning from a doctor’s appointment when she called Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

The top two local elected leaders had been listening for days as medical experts cautioned them about tens of thousands of visitors pouring into Austin and the chances of them bringing the city’s first case of coronavirus and perhaps making SXSW a flashpoint for the spread of the disease.

On Wedneday, local authorities had told the public that SXSW was proceeding and that cancellation would not make the city any safer. Still, SXSW attendees were deciding to stay home at a quickening pace, and those questioning the wisdom of holding the festival were growing louder. By Friday, Eckhardt concluded that increased concern from the medical community had reached a tipping point.

“If we need to flip the switch, I’m behind you 100 percent,” she said on Adler’s voicemail as she drove back to her office.

Her phone dinged a few minutes later with a response from the mayor: “Are you available? Important.”

At Austin City Hall, Adler had just texted City Manager Spencer Cronk for an update about what he was hearing from the city’s medical experts. Sensing that the possibility of canceling SXSW was about to take a turn, Cronk invited the mayor to his office one floor up.

By 1:30 p.m., those three officials were on a conference call with a handful of others. They quickly reached the conclusion they had dreaded but agreed was unavoidable: They would cancel SXSW, the signature tech, music and film event that puts Austin on the world stage and pumps $355 million into the local economy seven days before it was supposed to start in earnest.

“That is when the decision got made, but it has been top of mind, a serious important decision and one where the facts were evolving and changing,” Adler told the American-Statesman.

The cancellation — the first in SXSW’s 34 years — ended more than a week of behind-the-scenes efforts to try to keep the festival afloat, despite increased demands by some Austin residents and an online petition calling on officials to cancel it. Officials had pushed forward, even as they were weighing the threat that the virus would be introduced to the crowd and to the city.

Officials had been coordinating with organizers for SXSW, which draws 100,000 music fans and tech enthusiasts, to discuss aggressive steps to minimize the threat. They had talked about limiting attendance in some of the conference rooms where big-name speakers would be, shrinking them by half and allowing several feet between each chair. They had discussed checking attendees for fever at every entrance. They agreed to put out hand sanitizers every few feet and to give out pamphlets about the importance of hand-washing.

“If we had months to make these mitigation steps, to troubleshoot this, it may have been possible,” said Dr. Mark Escott, the city’s interim health authority. “But there just wasn’t time.”

Led by Escott, Austin officials had been monitoring the spread of the virus for weeks and, as the event drew closer, evaluating the threat to SXSW. Escott had formed a panel of experts, including infectious disease specialists and health care administrators, to give advice and share ideas.

In the past week, they had discussed scientific literature about coronavirus and reviewed guidelines from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They had studied information about the risk of outbreaks for mass gatherings and learned about the countries from which many SXSW participants come.

“The panel had questions,” Escott said. “There was substantial concern that there was a risk associated with individuals traveling here who either had been exposed or could be currently ill.”

At the same time, Adler said, some of the guidance about how to respond to the virus seemed to be evolving by the hour.

“There was some direction but not a lot coming from the feds, saying we don’t have data to prescribe local areas anything in particular,” Adler said. “You use the best data you have, but in the absence of strong data, you then look to best practices.”

Just Wednesday, he had said that, based on the information he was receiving, canceling the event would not necessarily keep Austin safer.

Adler said medical experts also were weighing the possibility of businesses and local workers losing income and their ability to pay for a trip to the doctor if they become ill weeks from now.

“You know at some level this virus is coming to Austin,” he said. “It is eventually going to get here, just like the flu gets here.”

But at the same time, both Adler and Eckhardt had privately instructed their staffs in the past week to draft language for disaster declarations that cited the virus, the pathway to the legal authority they would need to order the cancellation of the festival. It also could potentially allow the city and county to receive federal money if it becomes available as part of a coronavirus response.

“This has felt like a continuous conversation all week,” Adler said.

Officials had watched as a lengthy list of companies and speakers had announced plans to back out.

Adler sought input from other mayors in other major cities that have festivals scheduled soon, including San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, whose city is moving forward with its Fiesta parades and celebration in April. He also talked to Miami Mayor Francis Saurez, who had decided to cancel that city’s Ultra Music Festival scheduled for March 20-22.

Eckhardt said she was approached all week by residents and physicians urging her to help cancel the event.

“We didn’t want to make a panicked decision,” she said. “We didn’t want to flip the switch until we had a good and demonstrable reason.”

That came Friday morning.

Escott said medical experts continued voicing concern, and officials got more data about the risks of person-to-person contact in the spread of the virus. They also learned the virus was inching closer, with new documented cases in the Houston area.

On the conference call, Escott pointed out that the longer Austin can keep the virus away, the more time experts have to develop vaccines or treatments and the warmer temperatures would get, which can help mitigate its spread.

In addition to giving them the authority to stop SXSW, the disaster declaration also granted authorities the ability to review mass gathering events on a case-by-case basis to determine whether to allow them to proceed. Events expected to draw more than 2,500 will be canceled, they said, unless organizers are able to ensure they have properly lowered the chance for disease spread.

Adler said city health officials notified SXSW organizers of the decision. He said he did not know how the city’s decision to declare a disaster could impact any potential for SXSW to recover losses from its insurers.

A couple of hours after making the decision, Escott stood with Adler, Eckhardt and other officials to announce their decision to the city in a news conference carried live on every local TV station.

In an interview afterward, Escott said other factors also heavily weighed on him.

He said he realized that medical workers and other officials should now be spending their time educating and preparing the community for the virus — not making plans to host thousands of visitors.

“We need to conserve our resources,” Eckhardt added.

On Friday morning, a couple of hours before talking to Adler and Eckhardt, Escott stopped at his favorite coffee shop.

He realized there were no signs about the virus or fliers urging customers to take basic steps such as handwashing.

Escott said that moment confirmed to him what he already suspected.

“Our community is not prepared,” he warned. “This is valuable time that we need. We made the decision that we did to best protect this community.”

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(c)2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at www.statesman.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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