City, county leaders declare local state of disaster due to coronavirus concerns

City of Austin and Travis County leaders have declared a "local state of disaster" due to concerns about the coronavirus.

The declaration was made ahead of this month’s Spring Festival season following recommendations from interim local health authority Dr. Mark Escott, who acted on advice from an independent panel of experts. The season runs from March 13 through March 22.

“We have declared a local disaster and associated with that have issued an order that effectively cancels South by Southwest for this year," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said, announcing the declaration and cancellation of SXSW, Austin's annual technology, film, music and interactive festival, during a press conference on March 6.

SXSW issued a statement on the cancellation on Twitter, saying they will faithfully follow the City's directions.

“Over the past several days a group of experts has been reviewing the Spring Festival season and keeping track of an evolving situation across the U.S. and our State in relation to COVID-19,” said Escott. “While there is no clear guidance on what local jurisdictions should do under these circumstances, our local expert advisory panel took a look at the risk factors and identified a number of concerns.”

The city says it considered key factors in the decision, including:

  • The likelihood for extended close personal contact
  • Crowd density
  • A significant number of travelers from areas currently experiencing person-to-person spread of COVID-19 domestically and internationally
  • A high number of guests coming from unknown locations
  • The lack of a vaccine and limited treatment options to manage cases.

The city says events with 2,500 or more people are prohibited unless organizers are able to assure Austin Public Health that mitigation plans are in place. Each event will be evaluated case-by-case.

Rodeo Austin released a statement, saying they have been advised that "there is no immediate reason to cancel our events."

"Currently, the Rodeo Austin management team is working closely with City and County officials to monitor the COVID-19 situation," the statement reads. "Rodeo Austin takes public health and safety extremely seriously and will continue to be guided by City and County officials to determine if modifications to our events are necessary. At this time, Rodeo Austin has been advised by County officials there is no immediate reason to cancel our events."

RELATED: Health Alliance for Austin Musicians cancels events following recommendation from Mayor, city officials

No positive test results for COVID-19 have been received by Austin Public Health at this time. However, the city and county say they are prepared for the possibility of confirmed cases. The city says proactive preparedness measures have been undertaken by APH, in coordination with local, state and federal partners.

Despite the disaster declaration, the health authority still anticipates significant numbers of visitors to the Austin-Travis County area over the Spring Festival season. Escott said they are focused on mitigation strategies to protect the community.

RELATED: Explore UT canceled due to local disaster declaration over coronavirus

"These may involve modifications to public gatherings, including places of worship practices or school attendance," Escott said. "We will also be working closely with local hospitals and the business community to increase the availability of handwashing stations, hand sanitizers, messaging and posters to remind people of the importance of personal hygiene.” 

The city says Austinites can help prevent the spread of all respiratory viruses, including influenza and COVID-19, by following these measures:

  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Stay home when you are sick
  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow or use a tissue to cover it, then throw the tissue in the trash
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces
  • If people feel unwell, they should contact their primary care provider before going to a clinic, urgent care or emergency department, to prevent any potential spread

RELATED: Economic impact from SXSW 2019 shows how much Austin stands to lose amid cancellation

The city is urging all businesses and restaurants to display information to encourage people to follow good hygiene practices to keep the community safe.