By Rebecca Elliott and Elizabeth Findell 

Austin's South by Southwest festival has been cancelled due to concerns about the coronavirus, the city's mayor said Friday, the latest major event to be called off due to fears of the fast-spreading disease.

"After consultation with the city manager, I've gone ahead and declared a local disaster in the city," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a news conference, adding that the order effectively cancels South by Southwest for this year.

City leaders and health officials had said earlier this week that the two-week tech, film and music festival would go on as planned starting March 13. But a wave of companies including Facebook Inc., Apple Inc. Netflix Inc. and Twitter Inc. said their employees wouldn't attend, and more than 50,000 signed a petition urging that it be called off, putting pressure on organizers and public officials to make a decision.

Since its inception as a future-minded music festival in 1987, South by Southwest has grown to include film and technology, becoming an influential gathering for discussing and promoting new movies, artists, apps and other products -- as well as a popular extended party. It now brings hundreds of thousands of people from around the world to Austin each spring, including many celebrities, politicians and CEOs.

Among the businesses that flowered with help from the festival is Twitter, which gained buzz when many people at South by Southwest in 2007 began using the microblogging platform. Artists whose careers received a boost from performances at the event include the White Stripes and Katy Perry.

This year's show was initially scheduled to include appearances by Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey, and the Beastie Boys, who were set to discuss "Beastie Boys Story," a documentary on the rap group by Spike Jonze, as well as Ozzy Osbourne, who was set to promote his documentary "The Nine Lives of Ozzy Osbourne." All of them canceled earlier this week due to the virus.

World-wide, hundreds of conferences and trade shows are being canceled or postponed as the novel coronavirus leads companies to cut back on nonessential travel and government officials impose tougher measures restricting large gatherings, adding up to tens of millions of lost visits and revenue for local economies.

Organizers in Asia, Europe and North America had canceled or postponed at least 515 trade shows and exhibitions in response to the coronavirus this year as of Thursday, according to a tally by German expo trade magazine m+a.

Major events that have been canceled or postponed include the Geneva International Motor Show, Barcelona's Mobile World Congress, Miami's Ultra Music Festival and San Francisco's Game Developers Conference.

In Austin, health officials, the city's mayor and others had been having daily meetings over whether to proceed with South by Southwest, which had more than 232,000 attendees and brought in $355.9 million in economic activity last year, according to a study ordered by conference organizers. Among the options health officials considered was capping attendance at certain events in order to minimize the risk of the virus spreading in close contact.

Speculation over canceling the event had caused angst in recent weeks in Austin about what the loss would mean to many locals' livelihoods. It generates some 55,000 hotel room night stays, the festival estimates, money spent at local restaurants and stores and money in the pockets of waiters, cleaners and people who set up the events.

As this week went on, more companies announced they were pulling out of the event, including Broadcast Music Inc., which canceled a series of songwriters' shows Friday.

"The health and safety of our team members and our songwriters is of paramount importance, and we regret any inconvenience this may cause," it said in a statement. "We look forward to showcasing our songwriters' incredible music next year at SXSW 2021."

Earlier in the day, Mr. Adler had spoken at a local business incubator about the possibility of canceling the event via emergency orders. He said the state defines a mass event as more than 2,500 people. He brought up questions about what such emergency orders could mean for other events in Austin, from concerts to university events.

"What about all the permitted events that are happening in and around South by?" the mayor asked. "Do we close down all music venues in the city? For how long?"

Jackie Venson, an Austin musician who had planned to play at a Twitter gathering, said Thursday that canceling the festival could threaten Austin's status as one of the nation's fastest-growing cities and diminish a critical economic boost that benefits workers with overtime and bigger tips, and can keep the lights on at struggling startup bars and restaurants.

"Some people live off this money for the next six months," Venson said. "Some bars and restaurants open around SXSW to make it through their first year. They depend on SXSW just to get their establishment started."

It is hard to guess how a canceled SXSW would affect Austin's economic growth, she said, because it has never been canceled since its inception in 1987.

"Everyone I know that's going is minimum $3,000 in," she said. "They can't cancel."

--Colin Eaton contributed to this article.

Write to Rebecca Elliott at rebecca.elliott@wsj.com and Elizabeth Findell at Elizabeth.Findell@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 06, 2020 17:25 ET (22:25 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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