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SXSW canceled over coronavirus concerns

South by Southwest is the latest event to see its 2020 plans change in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Attendees at last year's SXSW conference.

Amy E. Price/Getty Images
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

SXSW has joined a growing list of events that have been canceled this year amid concerns over the coronavirus and the respiratory illness it causes, COVID-19. 

"Based on the recommendation of our public health official and director of public health and after consultation with our city manager I've gone ahead and declared a local disaster. And along with that issued an order that cancels SXSW this year," Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler said in a press conference Friday, later calling the cancellation "unfortunate."

Mark Escott, interim medical director and health authority for Austin Public Health, noted the size and scale of the event, along with its opportunity for close person-to-person contact, as factors in the decision. He also referenced concern over potentially bringing attendees from affected areas to Austin, all the while urging the public not to panic. Escott discussed precautions against coronavirus exposure such as washing hands and staying home if sick. 

"This is not a panic-based decision," said Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt.

SXSW, which started in 1987, drew about 417,4000 attendees in 2019. According to the event's demographics report, 26% of SXSW goers came from 105 different countries outside the US. The event covers topics including film; music; digital branding and marketing; environmental sustainability; and science and technology. The conference typically stretches out through two weekends.

In a statement on the SXSW website, organizers said they'd comply with 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," the statement says. It goes on to say that organizers are looking into the possibility of rescheduling, as well as providing a "virtual SXSW online experience as soon as possible for 2020 participants, starting with SXSW EDU."

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The decision comes after other notable events have been canceled or scaled back for similar reasons. GSMA, which puts on the mobile phone event Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, nixed the trade show for 2020. Facebook and Google also opted not to hold their annual conferences, F8 and Google I/O.

In the last week, companies including Facebook, Twitter, WarnerMedia (which owns HBO), Netflix, Apple and others all pulled out of SXSW. 

During this time, a petition on Change.org has been circulating, calling for the event to be scrapped. The petition racked up more than 55,000 signatures. Sixteen-year Austin resident Shayla Lee, who started the petition, told CNET by email, "It's better to be safe rather than sorry."

So far, the coronavirus has infected more than 100,000 people and claimed over 3,000 lives. The illness first came to light on New Year's Eve and originated in China's Hubei province. Cases have been reported in many other countries as well, including South Korea, Japan and Italy.