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Coming soon: A southwest petri dish?

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

Coming soon: A southwest petri dish?

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

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. 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 Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 11:13 am

    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. 

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 11:33 am

    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?

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 03:25 pm

    No, because office buildings tend to have the same people working in them day after day, so there isn't as high a risk of bringing in the disease from outside. But that might be a risk worth looking at as well--for instance employers encouraging employees to work from home when possible, and especially when sick.

  • pjp
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 01:48 pm

    I am amazed by the hyping of the coronavirus.  In a country of 330 million people we have a little over 60 cases reported and ZERO deaths.  In 2009 the H1N1  virus killed over 1,000 Americans and there wasn't this much panic.  This is not the Black Plague or the Zombie Apocalypse.  Believe it or not this is a another arrow in our quiver in our trade war with China.  Because of our hype over this virus many international companies are readjusting their supply chains with China who is now being seen as an unreliable supplier.  Hence the huge drop in the stock market.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 03:27 pm

    You do realize that China is the one that shut down most of their economy over this, right? There are cities that are still practically ghost towns because no one is going outside. Maybe China's overreacting and maybe they aren't, but that wasn't a US decision.

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 02:41 pm

    Editorial from the New England Journal of Medicine dated yesterday

    "...If one assumes that the number of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases is several times as high as the number of reported cases, the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1%. This suggests that the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza ..."

    Typical media much ado about nothing...

    The media in this country loves events that generate attention from the gullible public. In many ways our society has become a 1984 like society - the big screen is replaced by the pocket sized one.

    I don't know whatever happened to responsible journalism - we seem to have devolved into Yellow Journalism again. Note that I am not making any claim against this article but the American press in general.

  • CJ
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 10:41 pm

    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?


  • AD
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 03:17 pm

    So how about this - Don't panic but be smart...  If they are going to continue with the convention then ALL involved (hotels, restaurants etc.) need to spend a little money and be hyper vigilant about hand washing, disinfection, face masks, asking attendees if they have been sick etc..... If they are afraid of all the money that will be lost - they can at least be open about the risk and help people to be responsible and clean!

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 03:22 pm

    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.

  • CJ
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 04:12 pm

    That sounds like reasonable caution, not panic. 

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 04:35 pm

    " 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.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 04:53 pm

    Yes I do mean a very large percentage of the world. Why do you call that rubbish? I don't remember which articles were making those predictions, but based on areas where the spread has been unchecked thus far, it doesn't seem out of line to me. This is a very contagious disease.

    Also, if the new coronavirus isn't contained, there's nothing to stop it from becoming a seasonal event--if it even slows down in the summer. We don't know whether warmer weather will actually slow the spread or not yet.

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 05:53 pm

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

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 07:35 pm

    Okay, I Googled a bit, and it didn't take long to find a couple articles quoting figures estimating spread to 40-70% and 60-80% of the world's population (if unchecked), respectively. (Estimates by two different experts.) I'm not just making this up.

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 10:45 pm

    I don't think ANYONE would consider the Hill or the Guardian as a reliable source.

    The same medical expert (Dr. Gabriel Leung) quoted by these *ahem* reliable sources published an opinion piece in the NY Times where he failed to mention ANY of these numbers your sources came up with.

    This is what Dr. Gabriel Leung said about the article that you referenced - "In another recent study, we estimated how many people could get infected if there were no drastic public health interventions. Our goal with this report was to sound the alarm over what could be, so that it wouldn’t be..." This is what your sources referenced.

    You're WAY off base here. Stick to facts, not misinformation.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 11:00 pm

    Well, the first is quoting a Wall Street Journal article, which you're welcome to read if you can get through their paywall: I don't usually read either of the sources I first mentioned, but these aren't crazy numbers if two different experts are coming up with similar estimates. Do you have any sources of experts making significantly lower guesses (if containment is unsuccessful)? If not, I think I've made my point.

    I don't have any stake in any particular numbers, because everyone's guessing at this point. But given how contagious it is, we need to be realistic about the consequences if it spreads unchecked.

  • pjp
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 04:05 pm

    With all due respect, China shut down it cities after we started fanning the flames.  They would have kept on shipping until we made this a major issue.  China's economy is in a precarious position with the tarrifs we put on them.  Even the Phase I agreement is something that they are not going to be able to handle. The world is now recalibrating its business relations with China because of the preceived problem of the coronavirus.  Yes,people are getting infected, but people get infected with viruses everyday.  Even China has less than 3,000 deaths in a country of over 1 billion people.  More probably die everyday of car accidents there.  And now we have had one death.  Getting infected and dying are two separate issues.  This is the way warfare is being waged in the 21st century - not with bombs and bullets, but with informaiton campaigns.  And we are the best at it.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 04:59 pm

    What makes you think that China was listening to us? Was anyone in the US even asking them to shut down cities? Sure, some people tried to stick their heads in the sand initially, but there were enough people like Doctor Li to make them reconsider. There is a whole lot of China that the virus hasn't reached yet. I pray that it doesn't, but I'm not too optimistic. In the areas where the virus has affected large numbers, people are having trouble even getting hospital beds and basic medical treatment, and that includes people with unrelated illnesses and issues. Maybe the US has the infrastructure to cope if it spread here, but most of the world doesn't, and I'm not real sure how ours would hold up either.

  •  CaptTee's picture
    Posted: Sat, 02/29/2020 08:22 pm

    The biggest spreaders of the coronavirus have been people who travel by ship and airplane.

    When I was younger, I had a job were I got over 100,000 frequent flyer miles on several arilines. I would often get sick after being on a long flight with someone coughing a couple of rows away.

    Events like SXSW should offer ticketholders who don't feel well refunds and free livestreams to encourage them to stay home.

    People need to be encouraged to be responsible and think of others rather than what they would like to do.

    Practicing what I preach, I am staying home from church tomorrow, becuase I have a cough and an ear infection and just started antibiotics this afternoon after my wife encouraged me go to the Urgent Care doctor.

  • VolunteerBB
    Posted: Tue, 03/03/2020 04:29 pm

    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.  

  • D
    Posted: Mon, 03/02/2020 08:33 am

    As a retired PhD scientist from the pharmaceutical industry I would say the analysis in this editorial was spot on. 

  • VolunteerBB
    Posted: Tue, 03/03/2020 04:21 pm

    I just don't understand how this is worse than the flu.  Many get the flu shot, yet still thousands die from it.  Many times the vaccine does not contain the most prevalent flu of that particular season and is largely ineffective.  It is easily transmittable, yet we don't close things down or stop going about our daily lives because of it.  Why is this flu different?