Austin Health Officials Say There's No Evidence Canceling SXSW Will 'Make This Community Safer'

Mar 4, 2020

There is no evidence canceling South by Southwest will make the city safer from the spread of the new coronavirus, Austin public health officials said Wednesday, adding that they are reevaluating the situation on a daily basis.

"If there's any evidence that our community will be safer by closing down public events, we will do that," Dr. Mark Escott, the interim director of Austin Public Health, said.

Escott said he has convened an expert advisory panel made up of about a dozen doctors from around the state, which met Tuesday night for the first time to discuss "mass gatherings" coming up, including SXSW.

He said he expects there will be modifications to major events, church gatherings or school attendance in the future, but questioned whether the city was at that point now.

Even if SXSW is shut down, the director said, people will still be coming to Austin.

"They will travel ... but without that organizational structure that South by Southwest provides," Escott said. He said SXSW agreed last weekend to screen its employees and volunteers to make sure they do not have a fever before working.

He said public health officials have talked with organizers about looking into decreasing the number of people allowed at venues, and that organizers plan to have hand sanitizer available and push messages on handwashing.

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Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he wants the community to know these decisions are being made by health care professionals, and "no corporation or [SXSW] or anybody else has a seat at that table, because we are only motivated by making sure that we do what we can to keep the community safe."

There are no confirmed cases of the virus in Travis County, though health officials announced Tuesday that they are testing "one or more" patients who have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and have a travel history to an area affected by the outbreak. Those test results are expected later Wednesday or Thursday.

"We have no evidence of community spread," Escott said Tuesday, adding the risk of contracting COVID-19 is "low."