Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story indicated that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was the festival’s keynote speaker. He was a “featured speaker.” The story has been corrected to reflect this change.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — The CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, has canceled plans to speak at South by Southwest amid the ongoing outbreak of coronavirus. Dorsey was set to be a featured speaker at this year’s conference.
The news comes less than 24 hours after San Antonio announced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a patient from quarantine and that patient later tested positive for the disease. By that time, they had already spent time outside of the quarantine with other people.
Twitter issued a blog post Sunday where the company said it was banning “all non-critical business travel and events.”
Some groups have also canceled, including China Gathering, which announced in an open letter on its website that the last few months have been difficult deciding to “suspend the program.”
Hundreds of thousands of people from across the world visit Austin to attend South By Southwest. The festival runs from March 13 to March 22.
Twitter has a storied history with SXSW. Many people believe Twitter launched at SXSW in 2007. While that is not the case, the 2007 conference did help Twitter explode in popularity and become one of the world’s most recognized social media platforms.
Petition to cancel festival surpasses 30,000 signatures
More than 30,000 people have signed a petition to cancel the festival due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Shayla Lee started the petition three days ago. She wrote that “having an event like this is irresponsible amid an outbreak.”
Austin Public Health says there are “no imminent plans to postpone any current events,” including SXSW. If SXSW were to cancel, the economic impact would be immense. Last year’s conference had an estimated economic impact of $355.9 million.
Other locals have also expressed concerns about possible transmission of the disease, which is rapidly spreading. Globally, over 89,000 people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus. About 3,000 of those people died.
In the US, there are over 80 confirmed cases. Two are confirmed dead out of Washington state.
SXSW festival safety
The festival includes an attendee safety page on its website with updates about the coronavirus. Its latest update on March 2 states:
Regarding the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak: SXSW is working closely on a daily basis with local, state, and federal agencies to plan for a safe event. As a result of this dialogue and the recommendations of Austin Public Health, we are proceeding with the 2020 event with the health and safety of our attendees, staff, and volunteers as our top priority.
In guidelines posted on its website, Austin Public Health said it is “closely monitoring the rapidly evolving situation,” and has developed a five-phase plan to coordinate response activities.
- Phase 1: Persons Under Monitoring
- Phase 2: Persons Under Investigation (Testing in Progress)
- Phase 3: Confirmed Case (No Person-to-Person spread)
- Phase 4: Limited Person-to-Person Spread (Close/Household Contacts)
- Phase 5: Sustained Person-to-Person Spread in the Community
No health departments in Texas have requested the cancellation of any events at this time, as the risk of person-to-person spread remains low, Austin Public Health said.
Regarding SXSW, the health department said:
The health of the Austin community and those who visit our City is our highest priority. APH coordinates with South by Southwest (SXSW) annually to monitor and prepare for any public health emergencies during the festival – this year is no different. While in flu season, APH is working with SXSW to disseminate disease prevention messaging to help keep attendees and the entire Austin community safe. APH is also working with the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor and prepare for any local cases of COVID-19.AUSTIN PUBLIC HEALTH
Capital Factory leads innovative efforts to cut down on health risk at SXSW
On Friday, the Capital Factory will host “Hack Coronavirus”, a town hall designed to bring members of the tech industry together with local health and policy experts to discuss the safest ways to proceed with the festival. The Capital Factory is one of the venues for SXSW.
Capital Factory CEO Joshua Baer says those involved in the festival are keeping close contact with health officials.
“If it’s safe to proceed , South by Southwest is a really good thing for Austin,” Baer said. ” It drives hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact, and for many of the businesses here, it actually provides a stream of opportunities, business development, that they work for the rest of the year until the next South by.”
Baer went on to say, “Companies in Austin have invested in order to make that hundreds of millions of dollars that come back, They’ve spent probably more than $100,000,000 getting ready for South by Southwest, and if South by Southwest doesn’t happen, that money probably gets lost.”
Baer says in addition to Dorsey announcing he wouldn’t be at the event, he’s heard rumblings about other companies that may not allow employees to travel.
One of those is Amazon, which has scheduled sessions at SXSW. The company recently announced that it’s imposed travel restrictions for employees, saying it will avoid all non-essential travel within the U.S.
For those attending the festival, Baer says Friday’s town hall will focus on best practices and ways to make the festival as safe as possible. He says a couple of ideas that have already been thrown out are infrared cameras that would monitor people for fevers and having nurses on-site at events.
Baer says tech leaders are also working on coming up with an alternative to the hand shake to be used at the festival.
“Because that is one of the major transmission methods,” he said, “And it’s really difficult and socially awkward not to shake hands, so we need to be intentional about addressing that and come up with the official South by ‘not handshake’.”
Baer says he’ll also work with other organizers to come up with easy-to-read signage to be posted at venues, reminding people of best practices for avoiding the Coronavirus.
At Friday’s town hall, people will be allowed to pitch helpful ideas and demonstrate technology that could be helpful in preventing the spread of the virus. Anyone can apply for a time slot to do so on the event’s web page.