Austin Mayor Steve Adler said at a press conference Friday that the order was based on the recommendation of the city’s public health officer and director of public health.
“I’ve gone ahead and declared a local disaster in the city, and associated with that, have issued an order that effectively cancels South by Southwest,” he said.
There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus, in Austin or the county it’s located in, Travis County.
“This is an effort to carefully consider and weigh the risk of introducing a spread of COVID-19,” Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority in Austin, told reporters.
Evidence suggests mass gatherings can accelerate the spread of the virus, Escott said. He cited the size of the event and the lack of a vaccine for the new virus, which also has no proven treatment.
Under Adler’s disaster declaration, any events expected to exceed 2,500 attendees will be canceled unless organizers can show city officials “that mitigation plans for infectious diseases are in place,” officials said in a statement.
Key factors examined by a panel of health officials include the likelihood for extended close personal contact, crowd density, and whether events include a significant number of people traveling from areas experiencing person-to-person spread of the new illness, including inside and outside the United States.
Facebook, Intel, Twitter, and TikTok were among the companies pulling out of the South by Southwest conference in the days leading up to the cancellation.
Organizers said in a statement that the city canceled the March dates for the conference and that they would “faithfully follow the City’s directions.”
“We are devastated to share this news with you. ‘The show must go on’ is in our DNA, and this is the first time in 34 years that the March event will not take place. We are now working through the ramifications of this unprecedented situation,” they wrote.
Organizers said they were exploring options to reschedule the event and could provide a virtual experience.
Nick Barbaro, co-founder of the conference, who also publishes The Austin Chronicle, said in a statement published by the paper that the cancellation won’t be covered by insurance.
“We have a lot of insurance (terrorism, injury, property destruction, weather). However, bacterial infections, communicable diseases, viruses, and pandemics are not covered,” Roland Swenson, another co-founder, told the paper.
Some 73,716 people attended the conference last year, over 19,000 of whom traveled from outside the country. Organizers said that the conference had an estimated economic impact on the city of $355.9 million. This year’s conference was slated to start on March 13 and run through March 22.
A number of other large events have been canceled over the new virus, including the Mobile World Congress and the Geneva International Motor Show. Some believe the 2020 Olympics will be postponed or canceled, though organizers have said things are moving forward for now.
The virus has infected over 100,000 people around the world, killing thousands. The United States has seen a growing number of cases, including clusters in Washington state, New York, and Boston.