Austin business owners call for a postponement of SXSW, citing coronavirus concerns

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some Austin business owners are calling for a postponement of all 2020 South by Southwest events due to ongoing global coronavirus concerns.

A cancellation would have tremendous financial repercussions on the city: The annual festival increased its economic impact to the City of Austin to $355.9 million in 2019, according to an analysis by Greyhill Advisors and South by Southwest.

READ: SXSW 2019 reports higher economic impact for Austin in 2019

But other Austin entrepreneurs believe hosting another year of tech, movie and music enthusiasts from around the world puts the entire city at risk to harmful contamination.

“If you bring a half a million people together in Austin, you tremendously increase your chance of an untraceable corona outbreak,” said Garrett Wood, the President and Founder of GetSales Inc., an Austin startup.

While Wood concedes the festival is a massive economic driver for many Austin industries, he said startups like his will suffer.

“The businesses that directly benefit do not proportionately share in the risk. They are not going to pay my increase in insurance premiums or handle the problems that arise from having an entire office working from home,” Wood said.

“At this time, no health departments in the state have requested the cancellation of any gatherings as the current risk of person-to-person spread in their jurisdictions remains low.”

SXSW Spokesperson

Wood, a member of Enterpreneurs’ Organization of Austin, said he has been in touch with other business founders to share concerns over the upcoming festival. Wood told KXAN that Jess Ewing, the CEO of Literati, has also joined his call to postpone the event.

“I’m certainly going to reach out to the Mayor and I encourage other business owners to agree with me to do the same,” Wood said.

Other business owners have already spent a lot of money getting ready for the influx of visitors. Losing the festival would mean losing that investment.

“South by Southwest is a really good thing for Austin,” said Capital Factory Founder and CEO, Joshua Baer. “They’ve spent more than $100 million getting ready for South by Southwest, and if it doesn’t happen, that money probably gets lost.”

READ: Twitter CEO pulls out of SXSW; Petition to cancel conference reaches 15,000 signatures

So far, more than 22,000 people have signed a petition calling for SXSW event organizers to cancel the event.

Several prominent tech companies have also pulled out of their planned SXSW engagements. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is one of the most prominent after the company said it was banning “all non-critical business travel and events.”

A spokesperson for Intel has also confirmed the company has “withdrawn from on-site activities.”

Facebook released a statement admitting its disappointment and difficulty in making the decision.

“Due to concerns related to coronavirus, our company and employees will not be participating in SXSW this year.”

Tracy Clayton, Facebook Company Spokesperson

READ: 14,000 sign petition calling for SXSW to be cancelled over coronavirus fears

A spokesperson with SXSW said the organization is working closely with local, state and federal agencies to plan for a safe event. Organizers are also closely following the recommendations of Austin Public Health to keep the 2020 festivities on schedule.

“At this time, our public health officers are not recommending cancellation of SXSW. If local public health officials report any change in their assessment and recommendation, immediate action will be taken. Know that this situation is being constantly monitored and re-evaluated daily. Our public health officials are in constant communication with a local advisory panel (with all three hospital systems and top area physicians) and other professionals in cities across the country evaluating information and practices from around the world.”

Mayor Steve Adler

Eliminating the Handshake

The Capital Factory is one of the venues for South by, and Baer is working on creative ways to make the festival safer.

The organization is hosting a town call called “hack Coronavirus” this Friday. It’ll bring members of the tech community together with local health and policy experts to brainstorm ideas.

One already being pitched is to eliminate the handshake and replace it with something like a fist bump, elbow or foot-tap. Baer said once tech leaders decide on an alternative for the handshake, they plan on posting signage to let people know which greeting to use.

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