Here is an abbreviated list of things that have been closed or canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak: the Louvre, Facebook’s annual developer conference, the Geneva International Auto Show, and the April tour dates of the kpop superstars BTS.
You might notice one major upcoming event that is not yet on this list: South by Southwest, the bloated tech-culture-whatever conference and marketing phenomenon that draws thousands of people to Austin, Texas every March. This is a tremendous opportunity to do what the death of the hipster couldn’t: cancel South by Southwest.
In a lengthy statement posted to the SXSW website on Monday, the organizers said that the show will go on.
“SXSW is working closely on a daily basis with local, state, and federal agencies to plan for a safe event,” the statement reads. “As a result of this dialogue and the recommendations of Austin Public Health, the 2020 event is proceeding with safety as a top priority.”
The SXSW organizers further note that of the 70,000-plus people who came to the festival in 2019, about 19,000 came from abroad, and they suggest that very few of these people came from the countries most affected by the coronavirus outbreak (China, South Korea, and Italy). And besides, the people who make a living from putting on SXSW say, “cancellations are on par, or down, from past years.”
Perhaps I would find this reassuring if I was still living before Election Day in 2016, when the country learned from watching the New York Times election needle about the meaning of the word “probability.” It may be true that SXSW is less susceptible to becoming a breeding ground for COVID-19 than other conferences. According to David Abramson, a professor at NYU’s School of Global Public Health, the “probability” that things will go fine is on the side of the organizers. But that doesn’t mean it’s a mortal lock.
“Their rationale is not bad, and if there’s a considerable amount of self-selection that attendees engage in whether they’re coming, given their personal exposure, then the odds are pretty good that it goes on without incident,” Abramson told me. “But it’s only gonna take one person to slip through that net, and the house of cards tumbles.”
Having been to SXSW, it’s not difficult to imagine how things come apart. It’s about glad-handing and launching apps and shuffling from panel to sponsored concert to overcrowded bar and so on. The organizers of SXSW have a chance to be double heroes: not only could they possibly save lives by canceling their event, but they could save us all the inanity of hearing about it.