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City, county leaders stress caution to keep Covid numbers down through SXSW

Tuesday, March 8, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

The city and organizers of the South by Southwest festival have asked attendees of credentialed and free events to have proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid-19 test if they plan on participating in this year’s event.

Local leaders and SXSW officials spoke at a press conference Monday, explaining that Travis County’s vaccination rate, which is above 70 percent, has helped to limit the impacts of the latest wave of infections brought on by the omicron variant of the virus. The county recently dropped to Stage 2 of the Covid risk-based guidelines, removing the need for masks in all situations for those who are vaccinated.

Even under those guidelines, Travis County Judge Andy Brown supported the recommendation that festival attendees wear masks indoors, especially at concerts with closely packed crowds.

“We’re very eager to enjoy the festivities and going to local businesses and trying to get a table in restaurants while everyone is here for South By. And we’re super eager to celebrate the artists and the venues that make spring festival season fun,” he said. “Today marks the beginning of a path forward from the virus while also being able to gather and celebrate the experiences that make this community special.”

Two years ago, city and county officials made the call to cancel the festival roughly a week before its kickoff over worries that bringing thousands of visitors to Austin from all over the world would create a superspreader event for the emerging virus. Since then, the city has directed tens of millions of federal and local dollars to relief programs, including more than $26 million for the local creative sector.

Before the pandemic, SXSW had an annual economic impact of more than $300 million. There are tempered expectations for its size this year as business travel continues a slow recovery. As one indicator of the slow return, special event permit requests for this year’s festival were down roughly 40 percent from the number of requests in 2019.

Mayor Steve Adler said the decision to cancel the festival was difficult, but responsible, as the world was in the first stages of dealing with the spread of the virus.

“It was heartbreaking and perhaps the most difficult decision I have ever had as mayor … to cancel South by Southwest. That prospect was unforeseen and unimaginable at the time,” he said. “The impact on our community, small businesses, restaurants and hospitality industry … we knew it would be far-reaching and little did we know the full extent of the impact of this virus. When we canceled South by Southwest in early March 2020, ours was perhaps the first big event to get pulled down as part of the pandemic. Within 10 days it was something that was the norm as cities followed our lead.”

Event bookings related to the festival lagged behind the pace of previous SXSW years, said Ashley Gregg, general manager for the website Gregg said through the middle of February there was a hesitancy on the part of talent bookers and organizers who wanted to hold off on committing resources for events that could be canceled if Covid infections surge again.

In recent weeks, however, there has been an upwelling in activity for unofficial events of all kinds.

“Until a couple of weeks ago everyone was very cautious and everything was very up in the air. A few key things that changed were the Covid numbers getting down into Stage 2, and when that happened everyone kind of breathed with relief and said, ‘OK, let’s do this,’” she said. “Last week was the game-changer of people putting out event listings and wanting to arrange RSVPs and wanting us to promote their South By events … they all realized they could be on the right side of doing it and having fun with all the big brands coming back.”

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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