South by Southwest Is Canceled as Coronavirus Fears Scuttle Festival

The 34th annual edition of South by Southwest, the sprawling festival of music, technology and film in Austin, Texas, that has become a highlight on the annual global cultural calendar, was canceled by city officials on Friday over fears about the rapid spread of coronavirus.

Festival organizers and government officials had come under intense pressure in recent days to pull the plug on South by Southwest, with more than 50,000 people signing an online petition and a growing list of tech companies — among them Apple, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok — announcing their withdrawal.

The decision was announced at a news conference by government officials who stressed the needs to protect public health, and noted that South by Southwest tends to draw thousands of people from around the world.

“After careful deliberation, there was no acceptable path forward that would mitigate the risk enough to protect our community,” said Dr. Mark Escott, the city’s interim health authority and public health medical director.

In a statement, festival organizers said: “We are devastated to share this news with you. ‘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 now working through the ramifications of this unprecedented situation.”

“As recently as Wednesday,” the statement continued, “Austin Public Health stated that ‘there’s no evidence that closing SXSW or any other gatherings will make the community safer.’ However, this situation evolved rapidly, and we honor and respect the city of Austin’s decision.”

The festival was to have run from March 13 to 22, with events sprawling throughout bars and party spaces across Austin, and at panel discussions and other events at a crowded convention center.

The cancellation of South by Southwest is perhaps the largest collateral damage of the virus so far on the international cultural calendar. Last year, South by Southwest’s various events had a combined attendance of 417,000, including 159,000 who came to the music portion, according to festival figures.

Originally a scrappy showcase for new bands, South by Southwest — or “South By,” as it is widely known — has long since morphed into a vast mix of media, marketing and pop culture, where major brands intermingle with tech start-ups and independent musicians to mutually drum up buzz.

Globally, more than 100,000 people have been infected and more than 3,000 have died in an epidemic that began in China but has spread widely, including in South Korea, Italy, Iran and the United States, where at least 250 people have caught the virus and 15 have died.

But even though Austin has not had an outbreak of coronavirus, and the number of confirmed cases in Texas is relatively small, the festival had begun to look increasingly untenable. Major companies had begun to pull out, and many musicians and their managers have been discussing whether to withdraw.

Prentice Robertson, the lead singer of the Scottish indie-rock band Vistas, which was going to be making its United States debut at South by Southwest, said in an interview this week that his band was eager to go but also nervously considering the safety risks of travel. It had spent more than 6,000 pounds (about $7,800) on travel and other expenses in anticipation of going to the festival.

“We are weighing the options of how big a financial blow it would be” to cancel, Mr. Robertson said. “It’s a lot of money we’ve invested for it to completely not happen over all.”

The cancellation of the festival now raises questions for artists like Vistas about their sunk costs and whether any insurance or reimbursement is possible.

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