AUSTIN (KXAN) — The first round of events kicked off Monday for South By Southwest EDU, ahead of the main conference and festival’s Thursday start.

Public safety plans have changed a bit since the last in-person festival in 2019. Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon said all officers now have Narcan, which is used to treat overdoses, and the department is partnering with EMS to form more rescue task forces to get through crowds faster.

But it’s not just public safety that concerns organizers, so does COVID-19, and it’s why they said they’re keeping their Stage 5 COVID-19 rules, despite the Austin area moving to Stage 2.

“Even though our situation in Austin is getting better, we are going to stay the course with the plans that we put together as if we were going into an event in Stage 5,” said Tami Richter, event operations vice president. “We know that those mitigation measures will cover all levels of risk.”

That means SXSW participants have to mask indoors in conference and expo spaces, as well as in City of Austin facilities. They are also required to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of entry before they can get their credentials.

Richter said staff is cross checking documentation with IDs to make sure they match up.

A SXSW EDU participant shows proof of vaccination and ID to staff (KXAN Photo/Tahera Rahman)
A SXSW EDU participant shows proof of vaccination and ID to staff (KXAN Photo/Tahera Rahman)

They’re also partnering with CLEAR Health Pass, an app used by other events and even airlines.

“It’s a really quick download of your vaccine card and a verification, and a really easy way to verify when you go into any venue,” Richter said.

Organizers are also partnering with Nomi Health to offer free COVID-19 testing on site.

“If you get your antigen test, it’s going to come back within an hour, so you can take your antigen test, and as soon as you get your results, you can go right next door and pick up your credential,” Richter explained.

SXSW guidelines are similar to those in effect for Mardi Gras in New Orleans over the last few weeks — except participants there also needed proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter bars, restaurants and other event venues in New Orleans, according to the city’s website.

So far, according to Louisiana Health Department’s dashboard, there’s been no major spike in COVID cases.

Right now, there is no such proof requirement in Austin for SXSW events in bars, restaurants or event venues. But organizers are encouraging masking in all spaces.

“We definitely want to keep the numbers down, we want to protect our community, we want to protect those that we are inviting here to Austin and also protect those that they’re going to go back, too, after the event is over with,” Richter said.

She said registration has increased each week for the last couple of weeks.

SXSW EDU attendee Sage Salvo said at one point, he was concerned about COVID-19, but decided to come in the end.

“A) I did get vaccinated, and then B) I’m from Washington, D.C., and they’ve lifted a lot of the mandates, responding to a decrease in cases,” Salvo said.

He’s demonstrating his new technology at the event.

“We have an application that integrates music that kids listen to into their learning, reading and writing plan,” Salvo said.

He’s looking forward to his fourth SXSW.

“Networking. Meeting new people, new partnerships, new investors and new customers,” Salvo said.

Although he expects more people to filter through the event later this week, he feels comfortable with current COVID safety measures.