TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas — After calling off South By Southwest on Friday, Austin and Travis County leaders are taking another look at future events due to coronavirus concerns.
The Travis County Commissioners Court met on Tuesday to talk about the fate of Rodeo Austin, which attracts at least 200,000 people during the two-week event, and Luck Reunion, Willie Nelson's music festival.
"If we were to stop our festival economy cold and just cancel everything, we would then have an economic epidemic, which would make us less resilient for when we do face COVID-19," said Sarah Eckhardt, former Travis County judge. "I'm very proud of the fact that we give away over $2 million to the kids of Texas every year. So, I hope that the public, if they feel comfortable and they confident of their own health and safety, that they'll come visit Rodeo Austin within the next 17 to 18 days."
Rodeo Austin is set to start on Saturday, but that could change. This comes after the City of Austin and Travis County leaders declared a precautionary local state of disaster. That disaster declaration was extended at the March 10 meeting, but the future of Rodeo Austin and Luck Reunion is still slightly up in the air.
"We are a not-for-profit charitable organization and, frankly, I'm very pleased we get to continue and that we can do so in a manner that's safe for the public to come visit us," said Rob Golding, Rodeo Austin CEO.
For now, both Rodeo Austin and the Luck Reunion will continue as planned. But there is a special voting session planned for Thursday at 1:30 p.m. where discussion on both events is on the agenda. According to the county, the topics could be discussed again, but it is not guaranteed.
"An event, like Rodeo which is predominantly a Texas, even local draw, doesn't have the same risk factors say as South By Southwest, or if we were having Formula 1 for instance," said Eckhardt.
The Rodeo Austin and Luck Reunion organizers said at the March 10 meeting they believe public health and safety are important, but a cancellation would be a blow to the organizations.
"I think the most beneficial takeaway today is that we're starting to build relationships with other organizations, for example Rodeo Austin. We're going to have some dialogue now and understand and learn from each other's steps, what we can do to mitigate risks," said Matt Bizer, Luck Reunion partner.
“Some of the things that we are going to be looking at as far as some of the criteria will be crowd density, whether it's going to be an indoor or outdoor event, the layout of the vendor/venue, whether the event is a registered or unregistered event,” said Dr. Stephanie Hayden, Austin Public Health director.
On Monday, Austin Public Health announced it's canceling events that would draw more than 2,500 people from now until May 1. The only exceptions will be if the event organizers can assure officials they have a good plan to keep people healthy like handing out hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. Health officials said they will have to consider events on a case-by-case basis. This could include Austin favorites such as the Statesman Cap 10K, the Zilker Kite Festival and the Urban Music Festival.
An event is more likely to be canceled if there are a high number of travelers from areas with person-to-person spread of the coronavirus, extended periods of close contact and not enough hand-washing stations.
Rodeo Austin is in Travis County, not the City of Austin, so the decision to continue or cancel is up to county leaders.
Rodeo Austin released the following statement on Tuesday:
"The Rodeo Austin management team is working closely with City and County officials to monitor the COVID-19 situation. During our events, Rodeo Austin has a Chief of EMS, Chief of Security and Chief of Safety onsite 24/7, along with their team of professionals. These leaders, along with the Rodeo Austin management team, are working together with public officals to ensure mitigation plans are in place. Rodeo Austin has taken additional steps to increase public health information, health awareness and sanitation measures throughout the event. We encourage all attendees to follow the recommended Health Authority guidelines. We look forward to crowds coming out to Rodeo Austin and helping us grow the next generation!"
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