AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Centers for Disease Control warned Tuesday that it’s not a question of if, but when.

Federal health officials said during a media briefing that the United States should prepare for the new coronavirus potentially spreading in America.

The warning comes as Austin is getting ready to host hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world. South By Southwest starts in about three weeks on March 13.

“We have all this live music, and the city is vibrant,” said Bob Woody, who owns several bars downtown. “Huge clients, every year, they come to town. Facebook, Google, YouTube. We’re so happy to get to work with them. It’s pretty exciting.”

Last year, 417,400 people attended the festival over two weeks. Of those, 73,716 attended the conference portion. SXSW organizers say about a quarter of those conference participants came from abroad.

According to South by Southwest’s report, the top 20 countries represented were mostly in Europe, but people also came from China, Japan and South Korea.

As of Tuesday, according to the World Health Organization, there were 80,239 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide. If you look at countries where SXSW visitors came from:

  • China: 77,780 confirmed cases
  • South Korea: 977 cases
  • Japan: 157 cases
  • Germany: 16 cases
  • France: 12 cases
  • The United Kingdom: 13 cases

Woody said, “The scare was there for sure. A lot of talk about it. What I’m hearing is we’re going to have to live with this maybe ongoing. Part of our lives, sort of like the flu.”

With so many people in hotels, venues and bars, Jessica Creech said she’s concerned.

In previous years, she drove Uber or Lyft during the festival.

“Just during the major events that come in that bring in a lot of people from out of town,” she explained. “[It’s] good money.”

This year, however, she said she’s not so sure.

“It’s really concerning to me. I have five boys at home. Five small children. I think I want to hear what the plan is.”

Responses from Austin Public Health and SXSW organizers

SXSW organizers said safety is their top priority. They said they work closely with local, state and federal officials year-round to ensure a safe event.

When asked about any cancellations, they responded:

“Where travel has been impacted, especially in the case of China, we are seeing a handful of cancellations. However, we are on par with years past in regard to registrants who are unable to attend. We are increasing our efforts to prevent the spread of germs per Austin Public Health’s recommendations, and we will continue to monitor the situation closely and will provide updates as necessary.”

Austin Public Health said it’s closely monitoring the situation.

They emphasized, “The overall risk of COVID-19 in the United States to the general public remains low at this time.”

In a statement, the agency said:

“The CDC has stated that more cases are likely to be identified in the coming days. While we remain vigilant in our efforts to control the spread of disease, we may not be able to effectively prevent this virus from reaching our community.”

  • You can read APH’s latest update here.

For SXSW, events take place all over downtown. The hub is at the Austin Convention Center. Everyone goes there to pick up their badges.

The Austin Convention Center Department told KXAN it’s placing “more hand sanitizers and hand cleaning stations around the facility.” It’s also going to clean restrooms, escalators and door handles more often.

Additionally, they’re posting signs to remind people:

  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands 
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Stay home when sick
  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow or use a tissue to cover your sneeze, then throw the tissue in the trash 
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces. 

Austin-Travis County EMS said:

“Austin-Travis County EMS is aware of the newly released information from the CDC, and is monitoring the situation closely. We are making necessary preparations to ensure that we can care for any patients, in any situation that may present itself. This is a rapidly evolving situation, and we are working closely with our partners at Austin Public Health, area hospitals, and area first responders, to make sure that Austin & Travis County are prepared for anything that may come our way.”

Creech said she doesn’t think the festival should be canceled. Rather, she said, “It’s more finding a solution or a way to decrease the probability of people getting infected. Maybe SXSW should invest in N95 masks for people. If you’re going to be going into the building, you have to wear one.”

Woody said he doesn’t think the attendance will be affected. “Be thoughtful. Take those precautions you normally would during flu season.”