Mar 6, 2020
Transcript: South by Southwest Canceled Due to Coronavirus
Austin, TX officials spoke to the media today about the decision to cancel South by Southwest, which was scheduled to take place next weekend. SXSW is one of the largest festivals in the world and has never been canceled in its 34-year history. Read the full transcript of the statements.
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Mayor Alder: (00:13)
We ready? You guys all set?
Speaker 2: (00:17)
We’re all set.
Mayor Alder: (00:21)
So I want to let you know that based on the recommendation of our public health officer and our director of public health, after a consultation with the city manager, I’ve gone ahead and declared a local disaster in the city, and associated with that have issued an order [inaudible 00:00:52] to close South by Southwest for this year. The county judge has done a companion effort and we’ll give her a chance to let you know that and then we’re going to hear from the medical professionals on whose advice we relied together with the independent advisory panel that they brought together. And then at the end of their comments, the judge and I will conclude and we’ll ask for our questions. Judge.
Judge Eckhardt: (01:29)
Thank you so much Mayor. As the chief executive of Travis County, I am signing a companion declaration of disaster, which will apply countywide to festival gatherings that are attracting individuals from areas that have documented cases of person to person transmission of COVID-19 and also those participants would be expected to be in close and sustained proximity with one another. So clearly South by Southwest would fall under that criteria, but we will… this is a medical and data driven decision and so next I think it prudent to hear from Dr. Escott with regard to what goes into this decision so that we’ll also know how it will apply moving forward. The Travis County declaration lasts for seven days, and of course, with the option of renewal as long as we see circumstances requiring our heightened preparation.
Dr. Escott: (02:40)
Thank you Mayor Adler and Judge Eckhardt. I want to thank you for your leadership and taking this proactive step to help this community prepare for this storm. I want to start off by saying that we have no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Travis County. Having said that, the COVID-19 threat is growing across the United States and that threat is growing locally because of what’s happening in the rest of the United States and across the world.
Dr. Escott: (03:14)
But now is not the time to panic. Now’s the time to prepare and to provide a measured response to that threat. This is not unlike a hurricane looming in the Gulf. We know that the hurricane is advancing closer. We can see the storm clouds starting. It is not clear yet how strong or how impactful that storm will be. But now is the time to prepare. Now is the time to think about what are we going to do as a community and as a government when that storm comes.
Dr. Escott: (03:50)
I want to address the decision regarding South by Southwest. This was an effort to carefully consider and weigh the risk of introducing a spread of COVID-19, as well as the mitigation strategies… sorry.
Stephanie Hayden: (04:05)
Sorry about that.
Dr. Escott: (04:06)
That’s right… of canceling the event. All right. We have to weigh what’s the impact of the potential threat, threat of spread, and what’s the impact of the decision we make to cancel the event, because that can certainly have consequences.
Dr. Escott: (04:23)
What we know is there’s a lack of conclusive scientific evidence that canceling mass gatherings will change the overall impact in spread of disease over time. However, there is evidence that it may accelerate the spread and it may make that happen sooner. This lack of conclusive evidence is clear from the CDC and the DSHS response, which has been to defer to local government. So when we don’t have scientific evidence to inform us what the best decision is, we look for best practice. And when we don’t have best practice, we look to expert opinion, and that’s exactly what we did.
Dr. Escott: (05:09)
As you know, I formed an expert advisory panel with experts and leaders in medicine from across our city and county. We looked at the options for mitigation. We looked at are there opportunities to decrease the threat to an acceptable level that would allow us to continue. However, after careful deliberation, there was no acceptable path forward that would mitigate the risk enough to protect our community.
Dr. Escott: (05:38)
That risk assessment was based upon several risk factors associated with South by Southwest in particular. Some of those are the size and magnitude of the event. Some of those were the nature of the venue and what’s happening at those venues. When we have events where it’s close person to person contact, like concerts and those sorts of festival type of settings, we expect people are going to be together for an extended period of time, which increases that threat. Also of concern was the fact that there were multiple registered guests from international locations and domestic locations with evidence of person to person spread. That combined with the fact that this is a high impact disease and that we lack a vaccine or treatment at this stage makes the threat higher as well. I want to be clear, this does not mean we need to cancel all mass gatherings. It does mean that we need to take a more careful look going forward in how to mitigate that threat.
Dr. Escott: (06:46)
So in response to the declaration by the mayor and the judge, over the coming days, I’ll issue a series of public health orders that will serve to enhance our community preparation and enhance the protection of the most vulnerable members of our community, namely our individuals over the age of 65 and those with preexisting health conditions.
Dr. Escott: (07:10)
Our advice to the public right now stands the same. Avoid shaking hands. Use a fist bump, use an elbow bump, use a bow, whatever it is, because we know that one of the primary methods of spread is that handshake and then touching the eyes, the mouth or the nose. Again, wash those hands frequently. Use hand sanitizer if you don’t have availability of soap and water. Don’t touch your face with unwashed hands. If you cough or sneeze, do so into a bent elbow, into your sleeve so that you avoid getting that on your hands and touching other things.
Dr. Escott: (07:52)
I can’t emphasize this one strongly enough. If you are sick, if you have a fever, if you have a cough, you should not be going to public places. This includes school. This includes work. This includes church. We have to protect the community and we are powerful in protecting the community if we heed these warnings and this advice. You should not send your children to school or daycare if they’re sick, and if your plan for taking care of that child is a parent or a grandparent, you need to identify another plan, because again, those individuals over the age of 65 or those with other health conditions are the most vulnerable and we need to protect them.
Dr. Escott: (08:39)
Now is the time for our churches, our schools, our businesses, and our entire community to prepare for this storm. I’m going to turn it over to Stephanie Hayden now, who’s going to give some more details about special events.
Stephanie Hayden: (08:57)
Good afternoon. I’m Stephanie Hayden, Director of Austin Public Health. Since this situation is rapidly evolving, this will help us to be able to mitigate the spread of disease by requesting that for all events we implement a disease mitigation plan. The department will be working with the Austin Center for Events, as well as other partners in the city, to ensure all events have a disease mitigation plan.
Stephanie Hayden: (09:30)
Some of the things that we are going to be looking at as far as the criteria would be crowd density, whether it’s going to be an indoor or outdoor event, the layout of the vendor, of the venue, whether the event is a registered or a non-registered event, the number of participants that may be coming from areas that are affected by the COVID-19 outbreak within the last 14 days of that event, so if they are coming internationally or from within the US. We are also going to look at the age of the participants and the type and purpose of the event. All of these are things that we are going to move forward as we review all of the events that are happening in the city. And because there are dynamics with COVID-19 we will evaluate each event case by case. Thank you.
Judge Eckhardt: (10:33)
So to wrap up, I just want to reiterate that panic will weaken us. This is not a panic based decision. This is a decision based on expert medical opinion that we should cancel or discourage festival and mass gatherings countywide that are drawing participants from other areas of the country and the world that have documented cases of person to person transmission. We have no documented cases of person to person transmission in the Austin/Travis County area at this time. That these festival mass gatherings, if they have participants that will be in close and sustained physical contact with one another during the course of the festival, and that because of the nature of festivals themselves, mitigation measures that are available to other venues, like social distancing or controlled access to the event, simply aren’t feasible.
Judge Eckhardt: (11:34)
So that’s what we’re looking at. This is data driven. It’s health decision driven. It is not a panic decision. This is an action being taken so we will be prepared in any event. And I really appreciate all of our community pulling together and doing what our mamas taught us to do, cover your cough, wash your hands, be a good neighbor, stay home when you’re sick and if you are a venue that is not covered by a permit by the city or the county, stay tuned so that we can provide you guidance as well, so that we can all come together as a community and apply the same standards of care for residents in the city, in any one of our 21 other municipalities and also in the unincorporated areas of Travis County. Mayor.
Mayor Alder: (12:30)
The existence of this viruses is really unfortunate, but it’s unfortunate for everybody and for the whole world. I mean it’s at times like this that you do really realize that all of us are in this together, regardless of what city we’re in or what state or what country. We’re all in this together.
Mayor Alder: (12:57)
I want to thank Stephanie Hayden. I want to thank Dr. Escott. I want to thank the medical professionals with Travis County. I especially want to thank the independent advisory panel that had representatives or has representatives from all three of our major healthcare system in our city and some of our top physicians, infectious disease doctors from Dell Medical School and everybody that served on that panel. I am proud that we are making decisions that are data driven and based on the evidence, where the sole criteria being applied was the safety and health of our community.
Mayor Alder: (13:45)
I want to thank the folks at South By and other venues for allowing this process to continue as a scientific based and health related decision making process. And I appreciate hearing from the folks in town that have come to me and said whatever the decision is, just let us know, let us know what we need to do and we will participate.
Mayor Alder: (14:12)
It’s really unfortunate to be canceling South by Southwest. It’s a really important event to our city. It’s a lot of ways tied to who we are in this city and I really look forward to the next iteration of South By when it comes back again for us.
Mayor Alder: (14:35)
As you’ve heard this advisory panel will continue to study and analyze the other unsanctioned events that would be otherwise happening in our city and making determinations as to what is a appropriate. As we said earlier this week, this is a evaluation that is ongoing daily, with decisions made daily based on the best available information. That’s what’s happened today. Will continue to happen tomorrow and the next day.
Mayor Alder: (15:13)
And then finally I would conclude with what Dr. Escott said. There is no emergency in our city today, other than the exigency associated with needing to plan and be prepared. And that’s what this city is doing now.
Mayor Alder: (15:34)
And I’ll conclude with the reminder that the advice to wash your hands for 20 seconds and to fist bump or bow and to not go to school or work if you’re feeling sick is not something that’s being recommended just so that it gives people something to do. It is in fact based on the data and the evidence, the most important thing we can be doing in this community right now to to slow the the spread of of this virus. All right. With that said, you have everybody here. If there are questions.
Speaker 6: (16:14)
Can you tell me what’s the purpose for the disaster declaration? Does that have to do with… are you looking for funds or something from the state or national funds? Or is it just like an administrative tool to make sure the directive’s followed? What’s the disaster declaration for?
Mayor Alder: (16:28)
I think the disaster declaration puts us in a position to be most prepared on every level, so it would be all of those things and more. It puts us in the best position to be prepared for whatever it is that we need to be doing.
Speaker 7: (16:46)
You’ve always said that you could only recommend that South by Southwest be canceled. Is this recommending or is this telling South by Southwest you’re canceled?
Mayor Alder: (16:55)
Well with the declaration and with the order we are telling South By that the event is canceled.
Speaker 7: (17:02)
And what has been their reaction to you?
Mayor Alder: (17:04)
South By’s reaction all along has been that they want to do anything and everything that the city and the county indicate is the best way to keep the community safe.
Speaker 7: (17:17)
And what do you think thought? The ramifications are big. I know health is the number one priority. But the financial, economic ramifications are huge for the city. What are your thoughts on that?
Mayor Alder: (17:30)
That all ramifications are secondary to helping to ensure that we are safe as a community and we will deal with and work our way through all of the other ramifications. But this decision at all times has been governed by the priority to keep the people that live here and visit here safe.
Speaker 7: (17:51)
And what about the rodeo event coming on its heels?
Mayor Alder: (17:54)
Well, with all events that are coming up, the medical team we will be establishing and applying criteria as they did here, and that event, as with all events, there’ll be criteria issued, as well as suggestions for mitigation efforts and so that will continue.
Speaker 7: (18:23)
And what about recent-
Speaker 2: (18:23)
Does anybody else have anybody else have any other questions please? Yeah. Go ahead.
Speaker 8: (18:24)
Associated with this disaster declaration, is there a cap on the number of attendees at that type of gathering? How would it affect events that may not be officially related to South by Southwest?
Mayor Alder: (18:39)
Okay. So the order that’s being issued doesn’t establish in the order of the criteria to be applied, was the medical advice that based on the criteria that they have and the mitigation that would be necessary that this event, holding this event was impossible. It was incompatible with that. Their work continues. It’s going to be continuing on today to identify the criteria or whatever are the next appropriate action with respect to unsanctioned, and by unsanctioned we don’t mean bad or evil, we just mean events that are not formerly under the South by Southwest umbrella, and that additional work will be announced as it is produced and as is available.
Speaker 2: (19:28)
Let’s go here and then here.
Speaker 9: (19:29)
Dr. Escott, you said earlier the last thing done is assessing. You even said there’s no reason to think there’s a heightened threat, but it’s changed completely now. And also I talked to Austin Public Health about a test, the first test that was sent to Atlanta and they said 48 hours they’ll know the results. Do you know those results? And also expand upon what changed, other than the [inaudible 00:19:58]?
Dr. Escott: (20:01)
Sure. So I believe with the evolving situation across the United States, the identification and multiple cases in Harris County and around the Houston area, as well as the fact that we’re now testing individuals for the possibility of COVID-19 that that raises our level of concern to elevated. We don’t have any confirmed cases. We did get a result back on the one that we initially sent. It was negative. We have additional ones that had been sent. We will not communicate every time we get a negative test. We’ll tell you the first one’s negative. But we will communicate anytime we have a positive result and give you our usual information associated with those cases.
Speaker 2: (20:47)
Let’s go here please.
Speaker 6: (20:48)
When you mentioned the evidence that it has the capacity to accelerate, can you clarify what you meant and exactly what this panel of advisors were discussing when it came to the hard evidence that you were looking at?
Dr. Escott: (21:02)
Sure. So there’s literature on both sides regarding do mass gatherings impact the longterm number of people who get sick or die, and that answer is unclear. This is why you see CDC and DSHS has not issued specific information on what should go and what shouldn’t. That’s based on a threat assessment. But it’s important to remember that there is some evidence that because, particularly in this circumstance, there’s the potential of bringing people from areas where there is active transmission disease to our area that could see the infection here and cause an outbreak sooner.
Dr. Escott: (21:46)
Now, is that a concern in every circumstance? Not necessarily. Not in the cases where we have vaccines, we have medications which we can treat those. But in this circumstance, part of our national, our state, our local strategy is to delay this as long as possible, because we don’t know how soon we’re going to identify a treatment. We know that a number of companies are working on vaccine development, and we also know that we have a normal decline in infectious diseases related to colds and flus that happen in the summer months. So we need to buy time. Our effort was to see if there were opportunities to mitigate that threat enough to go on. And the answer is there wasn’t a path forward.
Speaker 6: (22:28)
And yesterday the governor announced the opening of four labs here locally and in Texas. The next question I had for that is whether or not we here locally in the county and the city have the capacity to test the people that may fall under these symptoms, and I know it is a very, step by step process that must be followed. But do we have the tools, the testing kits and the right resources to actually tackle this problem if it does accelerate here in our county?
Dr. Escott: (22:56)
Sure. And let me clarify something, two things for a moment. When we talk about testing kits, those are the kits that the tests are actually run on. We have swabs, we have tubes, we have the ability to collect that information. We don’t have a lab ourself as a city of Austin or Travis County. We have a lab here which it belongs to the state and that’s the state lab here downtown.
Speaker 2: (23:21)
Dr. Escott: (23:21)
Yup. Go ahead.
Speaker 2: (23:22)
I’ll just hit back here and then we’ll go over here.
Speaker 10: (23:25)
Difference in verbiage between a disaster and a health emergency.
Dr. Escott: (23:35)
Do we have somebody?
Speaker 2: (23:35)
That’s something we’ll have to follow up with you. That’s probably a legal definition. [inaudible 00:00:23:37].
Speaker 10: (23:37)
Secondly, is the thresh… or knowing where the guests came from, is that what separates a South by Southwest from the rodeo say or another… Austin Urban Music Festival or anything or the Dell Match Play or anything else?
Dr. Escott: (23:50)
Sure. The origin of the travelers was a key consideration, a key concern, and that was one of the things that we couldn’t mitigate or would have been very difficult to mitigate. One of the concerns that we had is that many of those individuals would have been placed under control orders or quarantine on their arrival to the city of Austin. Our concern was there was a possibility that those individuals would intentionally violate that control order and come to the event, which is difficult for us to control. So that was a key consideration. If events are local events, like high school sporting… events at the University of Texas that use Texas residents only or the vast majority are. It’s a much different threat level.
Speaker 2: (24:34)
Okay. Over here.
Speaker 8: (24:35)
Do the city of Austin and South by Southwest have insurance that would cover the cancellation of an event such as this?
Dr. Escott: (24:45)
I can’t answer that. There may be another question for the Mayor.
Speaker 7: (24:50)
The negative result you’ve got, just to be abundantly clear, when you made the announcement on Tuesday that testing was underway, is this the… one of the individuals from that so that we can kind of clarify the that patient is cleared now?
Dr. Escott: (25:04)
Yes, yes. One of the things that we found is we’ve had tests that had been sent to CDC that are still pending and we have tests that have gone to the state lab that are getting processed more quickly. So we’re hopeful now, because obviously, with CDC being the only lab for quite some time, there’s a backlog. We’re expecting that we’ll get a much quicker turnaround now that the lab is open here in Austin.
Speaker 2: (25:31)
One more question. One more question.
Speaker 11: (25:32)
Hello, doctor, very quickly. I know you can’t provide specifics on the patients [inaudible 00:25:37]. Can you just give us a profile? Are they elderly? Are they men?
Dr. Escott: (25:42)
Now, again, I’m not providing any information at all on individuals being tested. When we have confirmed cases, which we expect at some stage, we will. Then we’ll provide our general information, decade of age.
Speaker 11: (25:54)
How many pending tests are there?
Dr. Escott: (25:59)
Again, I’m not going to talk about number of tests pending.
Speaker 2: (26:00)
Okay, Austin last question.
Mayor, you talked a little bit about the economic impact. Can you talk generally about things the city can do to help businesses or workers who will suffer a loss?
Mayor Alder: (26:23)
I think that the resilient plans… obviously the city has some programs and social net programs to help with resiliency in the community. And I know it’s something that we’ll continue to look at. The first time we’ve been in this situation and I think we’ll learn as we move forward.
Speaker 2: (26:44)
Okay. Thank you. Thank you everybody. I appreciate it. All right. If you have followup questions, we’ll get you some information here shortly about these questions. Thank you. Let’s go ahead and get you all back upstairs.
Speaker 13: (26:55)
We’re going to go to the staff bull pen.
Speaker 2: (26:57)
Okay. We’re going to staff bull pen, so yeah.
Speaker 7: (27:01)
What exactly is this declaration called?
Speaker 2: (27:05)
Yeah so you email and it’s a… yeah, as soon as we have a chance I’ll-
Speaker 13: (27:11)
[inaudible 00:27:11] that person. I think it’s.
Speaker 14: (27:13)
Yeah, I think I have it there.