By Rebecca Elliott and Elizabeth Findell 

Austin, Texas -- The South by Southwest festival has been canceled 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 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.

Organizers, who didn't attend the news conference Friday, released a statement expressing disappointment that the festival had been cancelled, noting that it was the city's decision. They added that they were exploring the option of rescheduling the event.

"We are devastated to share this news with you," the festival said in a statement. '"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."

A spokeswoman declined to answer whether they had insurance covering the cancellation.

Local officials called the decision a data-driven one, based on health concerns that some of the festival's attendees would be coming from regions where the virus had spread and would be in close proximity with tens of thousands of others. As of Friday, Texas had confirmed six cases of coronavirus, all of them in the Houston area.

Dr. Mark Escott, the interim health authority for Austin, likened the situation to taking precautions when a hurricane forms in the Gulf of Mexico. "It is not clear yet how strong or impactful the storm will be, but now is the time to prepare," he said.

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."

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."

Although the official festival was cancelled, it was unclear what would happen with the many unaffiliated concerts and parties that take place on the periphery of the event. Andrew Lee, who operates a web guide to unofficial festival events, said more than 400 were scheduled as of Friday. He suspected many will go on.

Local officials said events with 2,500 or more people were now prohibited unless organizers obtained special approval.

Chip Dolan, an Austin-based piano player who also drives for Uber and Lyft, said cancelling SXSW would hurt. "It is all day long, all night long," he said of demand for rides. "If I get up at 8 o'clock and want to drive for three hours, it's as good as any day of the week."

Mr. Dolan had lined up a half dozen official SXSW gigs as a sideman, and another half dozen unofficial ones. He was hopeful musicians and fans would keep the unofficial shows going, but was also reflective about what a cancellation meant.

"I think it will wake some people up that this is serious," he said.

--Collin Eaton and Russell Gold 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 18:46 ET (23:46 GMT)

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