One of Austin’s biggest months for visitors has begun, just as concerns grow around the new coronavirus COVID-19. While most events are proceeding as planned, the scenario in which a large event would be shut down over the virus is a little murky.
Every March, the city becomes a playground for locals and visitors from around the world with South by Southwest, the PGA World Golf Championship Dell Match Play, the Austin Urban Music Festival, Texas Relays, Rodeo Austin and many other large events. Normally, that’s a good thing, but when you throw in a global health scare, it can be worrisome.
The city will also be exporting travelers, with thousands of students and educators leaving for spring break.
Large events in other major cities are being cancelled, including a large energy conference in Houston originally set for next weekend.
— CERAWeek (@CERAWeek) March 1, 2020
SXSW has had a few cancellations, including China Gathering, a group that introduces Chinese companies to those attending next week's conference.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey also cancelled his scheduled appearance as a keynote speaker. His company announced the suspension of all unnecessary company travel Sunday as the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. grows.
An online petition circulating to have SXSW cancelled, though not legally binding, was “signed” by thousands.
Undeterred, SXSW announced Monday it is adding some big names to its lineup. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be in Austin, along with U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke in a series called “Conversations About America’s Future.”
One mathematical epidemiologist who studies the spread of illnesses says she hasn't altered any of her day-to-day activities just yet.
“This is a rapidly evolving situation,” Lauren Ancel Meyers, an integrative biology professor at UT Austin, said. “I think that the CDC’s website is an incredibly reliable source of information and guidance. It provides practical things that you can do now that you should be doing anyway, because it’s flu season.”
There were no known cases in Austin as of Monday afternoon, but if the situation worsens, who would step in to cancel any of those major events?
Austin Public Health says it is working with city and county officials to determine how many cases meet the threshold of what would be considered “too many” and who would have authority to cancel an event.
The city says it will have a clearer handle on scenarios Wednesday. The disease, like its response, is evolving. Meanwhile, Austin Public Health’s chief epidemiologist, Janet Pichette, says the best ways to limit the spread of COVID-19 are those tried and true habits published on the CDC website.
“Hand washing, staying home if you’re sick, making sure you disinfect commonly touched areas and avoid touching your face with dirty hands," she said, "things like that."
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