Just one week before the 2020 South by Southwest (SXSW) festival was slated to kick off on March 13th, organizers announced that the event would be cancelled due to COVID-19. 

“We are devastated to share this news with you,” said the Friday announcement on the SXSW website. “The City of Austin has cancelled the March dates for SXSW and SXSW EDU. SXSW will faithfully follow the City’s directions.”

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This is the first SXSW to be cancelled ever in the conference's thirty four year history © Amy E. Price / Getty Images

The last minute decision by the local government went against SXSW organizers’ previous insistence the conference would continue as planned. As recently as Monday, SXSW has announced that organizers were planning to move ahead in coordination with “local, state, and federal agencies to plan for a safe event.”

The Monday statement acknowledged that a “small number” of participants had backed out of SXSW 2020. However, many of the organizations that dropped out included some of the heavy-hitting tech companies whose participation in SXSW has transformed the conference in recent years. Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Apple, Netflix, and IBM all recently announced they would not be participating in SXSW this year.

While there were no positive test results for COVID-19 in Austin Texas as of the end of business Thursday, March 5th, concerns were mounting about how SXSW might impact rates of transmission. In 2019, the event saw over 70,000 attendees in 2019, with over 25 countries represented. Some of the tech companies that backed out are based in West Coast cities that have had confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

The interior of Waller Creek Amphitheater in Austin Texas
Waller Creek Amphitheater, located behind Stubb's BBQ, is typically rocking during the festival © Merrick Ales / Getty Images

Other large-scale conferences that were taking place in Texas this year, including the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) event in San Antonio, were similarly torn about whether to cancel their events. While AWP chose to continue, despite the confirmed presence of COVID-19 in San Antonio, on March 3 Co-Director Diane Zinna announced her resignation over that decision via Twitter. That conference was slated to be just a fraction of the size of SXSW, with attendance estimated to reach 12,000 prior to the decision of many attendees to stay home. 

Conference organizers all over the world have had tough calls to make as COVID-19 affects many travelers’ decisions for both business and personal plans. Events like SXSW have a huge economic impact – in 2019, over 55,000 hotel rooms were booked by SXSW attendees, an annual boom Austin has come to count on over the past three decades.

A marquee announcing SXSW 2020 on the Paramount Theatre in Austin Texas
Austin's historic Paramount Theatre hosts daily film screenings throughout the SXSW festival © Shelley Hiam / SXSW

In their Friday statement, SXSW organizers acknowledged “the gravity of the situation for all the creatives who utilize SXSW to accelerate their careers; for the global businesses; and for Austin and the hundreds of small businesses...that rely so heavily on the increased business that SXSW attracts.”

In lieu of the typical SXSW experience, organizers are “exploring options to reschedule the event and are working to provide a virtual SXSW online experience as soon as possible,” so attendees should keep an eye for further announcements from the South by Southwest team.

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