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Coming soon: A southwest petri dish?

Festival organizers could take a cue from Jaws if the coronavirus outbreak worsens

South by Southwest attendees pack the Austin Convention Center during a recent festival. Associated Press/Photo by Jack Plunkett

Coming soon: A southwest petri dish?
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On Friday night I Googled “South by Southwest,” Austin’s huge music/movie/tech festival scheduled to begin in 13 days, and “Jaws,” the 1975 film. No one had mentioned them in the same breath. Not yet.

In Jaws, coastal town police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) sees strong evidence of a shark attack and wants to put up “Beach Closed” signs. Cadillac-driving Mayor Larry Vaughn countermands the order, saying, “We need summer dollars, and if they can't swim here, they'll use the beaches at Cape Cod. … We don’t need a panic this close to the Fourth of July.”

Later, when it’s clear a shark has killed a child, some still oppose closing the beach. A Mr. Polk says, “We’ll lose business, we lose taxes, we lose our shirts.” It’s not Brody’s fault, but the mother of the dead child slaps him: “You knew it was dangerous, but you let people go swimming anyway. You knew all those things, and still my boy is dead.”

South by Southwest (SXSW) lasts for 10 days (March 13–22 this year). Last year it attracted 400,000 visitors from 106 nations. My wife and I have covered and written about it. Visitors crowd into bars and other venues where 2,000 musicians perform. Fans pack convention center rooms for 2,000 sessions, panels, and workshops.

If the coronavirus continues to spread, SXSW will be a perfect petri dish for tens of thousands to catch it, spread it, and take it back to their own states and countries. But SXSW is Austin’s financial Christmas in March. The economic impact is more than $300 million annually. Hotels fill their rooms and raise their prices. I’m complicit: For two years we rented out our four-bedroom home through Airbnb for at least $500 per night.

If the coronavirus continues to spread, SXSW will be a perfect petri dish for tens of thousands to catch it, spread it, and take it back to their own states and countries.

On Friday night, the SXSW website still crooned, “Join artists, innovators, and thought leaders from around the world and turn your ideas into reality this March. Experience 10 days of unparalleled discovery, learning, and networking with creatives across tech, film, and music industries.”

All that could be true. By March 13 the coronavirus could be a nightmare from which we’ve awakened. The SXSW website on Friday announced an update, “The SXSW 2020 event is proceeding as planned. … We will continue to monitor the situation closely and will provide updates as necessary.”

On Friday, city officials at Austin Public Health posted this: “The health of the Austin community and those who visit our City is our highest priority. APH coordinates with South by Southwest annually to monitor and prepare for any public health emergencies during the festival—this year is no different.”

The officials may be right. This year may be no different. Or it may be very different. Change.org on Friday night displayed a petition calling for the cancellation of SXSW amid the coronavirus outbreak. “Having an event like this is irresponsible amid an outbreak,” it declared. “Please think about … the people who could die because of this.” Organizers of next month’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco have canceled their event.

The movie Jaws was the highest-grossing film of all time until Star Wars, which appeared two years later. Jaws is on lists of the 100 greatest movies of all time. Roy Scheider’s line regarding the shark hunt, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” is 35th on one list of the top 100 movie lines. We all know the police chief who put lives first was right, and the mayor who put money and beach festivities first was wrong.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas.



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I used to get the "airplane flu" every time I flew on a commercial airliner.  I started breathing through a wet paper towel, and/or putting vaseline in my nostrils and was more careful about sanitizing things before I touched them or not using my hands to touch things like doorknobs, etc. except through a paper towel.  I stopped getting sick, or maybe I just built up an immunity, who knows, I don't get sick anymore tho, that is what counts.  I used to call planes "flying germ tubes,"  and had that description confirmed by someone who builds and works on aircraft.  It is true, he said, the air is recirculated and very little fresh air is brought in.  If someone in first class is coughing without covering their mouth, you will eventually breath it in coach.  


This quote also comes from the medical journal article you referenced. 

"However, given the efficiency of transmission as indicated in the current report, we should be prepared for Covid-19 to gain a foothold throughout the world, including in the United States. Community spread in the United States could require a shift from containment to mitigation strategies such as social distancing in order to reduce transmission. Such strategies could include isolating ill persons (including voluntary isolation at home), school closures, and telecommuting where possible."

Are you suggesting we wait until it spread before taking reasonable measures to contain it?


Just Me 999

"...I don't remember which articles were making those predictions..." - you've exactly made my point - without facts all you can spread is fear!

Just Me 999

" If the coronavirus is not contained, a very large percentage of the people in the world will be infected" - you don't really mean large percentage of the world - that's total rubbish! You might mean relatively larger numbers than a typical flu but not your statement.

No wonder the world is overreacting here.

Laura W - go buy cans of tuna, bottles of water, seal up your doors, wear a mask so that we can avoid this hypercontagion! Let's all panic because the talking heads on the little screen told us to!

You've forgotten about the WHO phrase "Seasonal influenza" which means this is an annual event. Please think first! Again, no wonder the world is overreacting here. Good grief.


That sounds like reasonable caution, not panic. 

Laura W

The new coronavirus kills people. Even though the death rate per infection is low, it is very good at infecting people. (The only reason we haven't had more US cases is that our officials have been working very hard to prevent the unsupervised entry of anyone who has it.) If the coronavirus is not contained, a very large percentage of the people in the world will be infected. So even though many people who get sick have only mild (or no) symptoms, there will still be large absolute numbers who become severely ill, and many of those will die (especially if existing facilities are swamped, as is happening in China). This is why it is important to contain it, if at all possible.

Maybe the new coronavirus is no more deadly than the flu. We're not really sure yet because of problems with inaccurate reporting and diagnosis. But even so, it's worth trying to avoid having another seasonal disease that matches influenza in its death toll if possible. (It may already be too late.) According to WHO, "Worldwide, these annual epidemics [of influenza] are estimated to result in about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 290 000 to 650 000 respiratory deaths." If the new coronavirus isn't controlled, it could pretty easily equal or exceed this death toll every year. It's not panicking to suggest that an event that draws people from around the globe and packs them together in a crowded area may be a recipe for disaster in this context.

William Peck 1958

Why is Marvin focusing on the Austin festival? I get it because he lives there. BUT - using his logic wouldn't the same conclusion be to CANCEL apply to EVERY OFFICE BUILDING in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, AND THE REST OF THE WORLD? and WHAT ABOUT ALL THE BASKETBALL GAMES IN THESE CITIES. That's worse than the Austin fesitval, because it's INSIDE!!!!

What exactly is the risk of contracting coronavirus? 

Isn't the bigger virus that the entire world is laying the blame at Trump? Oh, he's unfit for office, per Marvin, so just desserts, huh?

William Peck 1958

Hmmmm, interesting .... but is Marvin Olasky actually saying we should panic? I think he is. He's actually saying the shark is in the water, and the moral choice is to close the festival. 

Is this conclusion based on good science? Do people drop dead from this like flies? How does this compare to the "regular flu"? 

I just don't believe this is time for panic, because it's never in context. It's all fear-mongering, and really, Marvin adds to it.

It's a really good analogy with Jaws. But is it the same? Is the shark literally in the water here?

And really, how do we measure risk for ANYTHING?  In reality, the safeist thing to do is to never go outside, and have Amazon deliver your groceries. And work from home. Then your chances of contracting coronavirus is pretty darn small. (About the same as going to the festival in Austin, dare I say)


I like Marvin's candidness of renting out his house via AirBnB.