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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 the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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