AUSTIN (KXAN) — City leaders shared how they’re preparing for the return of holding South by Southwest in person and the health and safety concerns that come with that.

People will notice a much larger law enforcement presence in downtown Austin throughout the duration of SXSW, which runs from March 11-20. Chief Joseph Chacon explained police will especially focus on traffic enforcement as well as human trafficking and gun violence prevention. He said the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety will provide resources to assist police with these operations.

Chacon said police will work on “improving the safety and overall perception of safety so that people not only are safe but feel safe while they’re here in our city enjoying this wonderful time.”

During a news conference Monday, the police chief also said every officer is now carrying Narcan, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. He brought this up while responding to questions about a series of overdoses that happened this weekend in Austin, which killed two people and sent a dozen others to the hospital. The Austin-Travis County Office of the Chief Medical Officer reported Xylazine, a drug used in veterinary medicine, is at least partially responsible for the increase in opiate overdoses over the past week.

“What we’re hopeful of is that we can get to, if we’re having a person experiencing a drug overdose, get to them quickly,” Chacon said.

That’s been an ongoing effort over the last year, Chacon explained to KXAN after the news conference.

“We have had many of our officers, including our organized crime division, that kind of deal with this on a more regular basis, have Narcan for quite some time. We’re just now getting to where everyone has it,” Chacon said.

He also explained police will have quick response teams ready that can easily get past barriers or road blocks downtown to administer emergency medical services if needed.

“What we do is we partner with EMS for what we call a Rescue Task Force. And, those are designed not just for a medical emergency, they they’re generally on vehicles that can get in and out of barricades and through the streets very, very quickly, and can respond within sometimes seconds,” Chacon explained.

Police are setting up a central command center that will have constant communication with event organizers to respond to any incidents that may arise.

Police will also begin their no-refusal initiative on March 11 from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., and they will continue it each day during those same hours for the duration of the festival season. 

The city said only 106 permits were filed for this year’s event, compared to 190 for 2020’s event before it got canceled. A representative for South by Southwest said attendance is currently around 20% less than what it was in 2019.

Still, though, police are preparing for large crowds because the festival is only one aspect to take into consideration.

“We are anticipating very large crowds. We may have just the normal crowds that come out for a weekend in the entertainment district that are joining the South by Southwest crowd. So that’s just going to be more folks,” Chacon said. “But we also have more officers. And we’re also partnering with Travis County, and with DPS that are also providing resources for the festival.”

Traffic & public transportation

Chacon is advising drivers to “please be patient” due to the number of road closures happening throughout SXSW. He said people will notice police placing physical barriers starting at about 12 p.m. every day during the festival, and those will remain in place until the early morning hours.

For that reason, the director of the Austin Transportation Department, Robert Spillar, is advising people not to drive downtown if at all possible.

“If you own a business or you work downtown, please consider teleworking, using an alternate mode of transit,” Spillar said. “Capital Metro will be active throughout the event.”

Capital Metro announced an extension of operating hours for its MetroRail service. During the festival, trains will run Monday through Thursday until 12:30 a.m. On Fridays, they’ll go until 2:30 a.m. Capital Metro will also offer Sunday service during the first weekend of the festival, which it normally doesn’t have.

Capital Metro will position “ambassadors” at each MetroRail station to answer people’s questions, especially those who are visiting Austin and utilizing its public transit for the first time.

Dottie Watkins, Capital Metro’s deputy CEO, also reminded SXSW attendees that masks remain mandatory on public transportation because of Transportation Security Administration rules. She said the agency will provide a limited number of masks on its buses and trains if someone forgets theirs.

COVID-19 protocols

SXSW begins exactly one week after the area moved back to Stage 2 of the COVID-19 risk guidelines. However, organizers said they will operate the event as if Austin is still in Stage 5, the highest level of risk.

Austin Public Health is encouraging people to wear a mask at indoor venues where distancing is not possible “at least through March 20,” local health authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said.

Organizers previously announced that SXSW attendees will need to be either up to date on their vaccinations for COVID-19 or have a recent negative test in order to get/maintain their credentials. Tammy Richter, the vice president of event operations for SXSW, said that policy even applies to free events, like the outdoor stage along Lady Bird Lake.

She explained the festival will also open a free COVID-19 testing center at the Austin Convention Center and have pop-up testing sites at all events that are free and open to the public. These will be accessible to everyone associated with the festival, she said.

“We think it’s going to be really important because there is probably going to be less masking out in the city,” Richter said, “and we want people to be able to have these resources to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Richter said organizers are anticipating badge sales to only increase as the start of the festival approaches. However, the City of Austin shared that it issued fewer special event permits for this year’s events, which made some speculate crowd sizes could actually be smaller than previous SXSW events.

Brydan Summers, the consumer services manager with the Development Services Department with the Austin Center for Events, said the city permitted a total of 106 spring festival season events this year, which is less than the 190 issued during 2020.

Regardless, Austin and Travis County’s top leaders said they’re excited to welcome back visitors for an in-person SXSW, especially after the event’s outright cancellation two years ago set off a wave of economic challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are so happy to be here, to welcome you back and have a safe spring festival season,” City Manager Spencer Cronk said Monday.

Mayor Steve Adler compared the economic impact of SXSW in Austin to that of a city chosen to host the Super Bowl.

“It’s been devastating, but we’re sure happy to have it back now,” Adler said.