South by Southwest festival cancelled over COVID-19

Officials in Austin, Texas, have cancelled the South by Southwest arts and technology festival.

Festival organizers 'devastated' by necessity of the move

David Byrne is seen at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, in March 2019. Austin city officials have cancelled the arts and technology festival as a precaution because of the threat of COVID-19. (Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP)

Officials in Austin, Texas, have cancelled the South by Southwest arts and technology festival.

Mayor Steve Adler said Friday he'd declared a "local disaster" in the city as a precaution because of the threat of the coronavirus, effectively cancelling the annual event, which was due to start March 13. 

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, the county's top elected official, said no one in the Austin area has been found to have the coronavirus. However, South by Southwest (SXSW) was expected to draw an international audience into close quarters, posing a serious threat of contagion.

Festival organizers said in a statement that they were "devastated" by the necessity of the move.

"'The show must go on' is in our DNA, and this is the first time in 34 years that the March event will not take place. We are working through the ramifications of this unprecedented situation," they said. 

The organizers noted that Austin Public Health had stated as recently as Wednesday that "there's no evidence that closing SXSW or any other gatherings will make the community safer."

"However, this situation evolved rapidly, and we honour and respect the City of Austin's decision," the organizers said.

The announcement comes days after several high-profile companies, including Netflix, tech news outlet Mashable, video-based social media platform TikTok and U.S. chip maker Intel, pulled out of the festival.

More than 50,000 people had signed a petition seeking to get the festival cancelled.

Actor Kumail Nanjiani, who had been scheduled to attend the festival to promote the movie The Lovebirds, said he was disappointed but that he understood.

South by Southwest "is one of my favourite festivals," he tweeted. "Cancelling it was the responsible thing to go. I know this sucks for many people for whom this was a massive opportunity. But we're kind of in an unprecedented situation here and caution is key. Thank you for the making the right decision."

The festival drew 73,716 attendees last year, 19,166 of whom came from outside the U.S. Combined with SXSW's gaming expo and education conference, the 2019 event drew 417,400 attendees, organizers said. An economic impact report found it contributed $355.9 million to the local economy.

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus has climbed to 14, with all but one victim in Washington state, while the number of infections swelled to over 200 scattered across at least 18 states, including at least six cases in the Houston area, some 230 kilometres southeast of Austin. 


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