SXSW was cancelled because of the coronavirus, but I headed to Austin anyway. This is what it’s like.

A plastic giraffe sits near empty tables outside the entrance to Unbarlievable in Austin, Texas. Courtesy of Claire Shefchik
  • Claire Shefchik is a travel and culture writer in the British Virgin Islands.
  • This year, she planned to attend South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas for the first time, but the culture and tech festival was cancelled as part of a nationwide attempt to stave off further spread of the coronavirus.
  • Shefchik decided to keep her travel plans after hearing that many unofficial events would still be happening in Austin this week.
  • While she did find lively crowds at some local bars and venues, “it was as if a giant broom had swept everyone over the age of 40 off the streets,” she writes.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

“I’ve never seen Rainey Street like this,” said my friend Hugo. “Not this week, anyway.”

It was 2 p.m. on Thursday, March 12, the day before SXSW had been scheduled to start. A giant plastic giraffe greets us as we enter Unbarlievable, where a solo cover singer with an acoustic guitar takes requests from four or five people gathered; one gets the impression he’d be happy to play anything from ABBA to ZZ Top just to keep us around. A sign in front of the bar across the street reads, “I attended SXSW and all I got was this lousy coronavirus.”

A staple of Austin


Unbarlievable didn’t have any official events scheduled for the festival, the bartender told me; they relied on overflow traffic from the hundreds of other shows, events, and seminars that normally would have been taking place in the area, capitalising on their location at Ground Zero of the festival that’s been a staple of Austin, Texas life for the past 25 years.

For me, it had been set to be not only my first SXSW, but my first trip to Austin, the notoriously, hip-slash-weird Texas capital city I’d felt particularly called toward ever since my days as an underemployed indie rock music critic. What better time and place to see it than on its most famous week? Days before I was set to fly, though, SXSW was cancelled, alongside hundreds of other large events around the country, in attempts to stave off further spread of COVID-19.

Quiet, empty streets


Instead of music, parties, food and fun, I was headed straight into what the mayor had declared a “city-wide disaster.” Was there any point in coming?

The unofficial SXSW

The quiet streets of Austin. Courtesy of Claire Shefchik

“Of course,” said Hugo, a longtime Austinite. Long before the huge, corporate-sponsored events from the likes of Twitter, Facebook and TikTok, he points out, SXSW was known for its “unofficial” shows, where hundreds of musicians descended for their best shot at exposure all year. Within minutes of the cancellation, sites for “band refugees” sprung up to find homes for suddenly idle musicians. It seemed that the young, invincible millennials that are booking cheap tickets to Spain and Italy despite the dangers could make the festival worth attending after all, even if it meant taking their lives in their hands.

Later in the afternoon, Rainey Street began showing signs of life. A manager of a brand-new bar fearlessly shook our hands and invited us back later for a private party. Hugo had tickets to East Side venue Fair Market for a sold out show by legendary British house DJ Carl Cox. I spotted a few people dancing in black ninja masks. Was it fashion or precaution?

‘We knew people were going to go out anyway’

A solo cover singer at Unbarlievable in Austin, Texas. Courtesy of Claire Shefchik

In any case, “Keep Austin Weird” was living up to its reputation.

On Friday, encouraged by the previous night, Hugo and I hopped on his motorcycle and headed to the Hipstirs cocktail bar on South Lamar Boulevard. By now, the city had confirmed its first two cases of the virus. Public schools were closed, and SXSW announced that it was laying off a third of its workforce. With the stakes raised, we weren’t sure what to expect.

What we found was a young, fashionable crowd sipping lavender-tequila cocktails and brick-oven pies from Ghost Pizza, enjoying the sounds of San Marcos-based band The Ooey Gooeys.

Jordan Lecroy, executive director of MSB Ventures, the company behind the event, said she’d been closely monitoring the situation and had been in touch with city leadership, but decided to go on. “We know there’s a lot of uncertainty out there right now, but we knew people were going to go out anyway,” she explains. “We wanted them to come here.”

What about now, when there have been cases diagnosed? I asked her. She paused.

“We’re re-evaluating, taking it day by day,” she said. Still, she happily handed us a flyer for a mixology seminar planned for next week.

Events were still happening

A small crowd at HipStirs. Courtesy of Claire Shefchik

According to Evan Granberry, drummer for the Ooey Gooeys, “We had some coronavirus concerns, but we never really considered not coming,” he said. “Personally, the band is more of a hobby for me. I’m an audio engineer and if live music goes away, that will affect me a lot more.” He admits he suspects this could be the band’s last show for a while. But it’s not all bad. “We planned to get to work on our EP, anyway.”

Later, Hugo directed me to a site called Where When What, a site doggedly tracking events determined to happen come hell or high water (or high fever), ranging from a Kendra Scott jewellery expo to the 2020 Big Gay Kickoff Party, hosted by Austin’s LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

A nice break

‘It was as if a giant broom had swept everyone over the age of 40 off the streets,’ writes the author. Courtesy of Claire Shefchik

Later that night, after dinner, we hit ’80s night at legendary downtown bar Barbarella’s. It was lively enough, but it was as if a giant broom had swept everyone over the age of 40 off the streets. Earlier, around rush hour, Congress Avenue had been nearly devoid of traffic as the city’s workforce had resigned itself to telecommuting. We shared a sobering ride in an Uber with a driver who’s sorely missing the $US400 a night she’d normally take in during SXSW. “Poor little Austin,” she said, surveying the dwindling crowds on the streets. “It’s like a Monday out here. A slow Monday.”

Our fellow passenger, a born and raised Austinite, works at a barbecue restaurant downtown. “I had four customers this morning,” he said. But, he said, he gets paid a salary, so he wasn’t complaining. “It was a nice break,” he said.

Not surprisingly, he’s not the only Austinite to express a kind of grudging relief at the unexpected peace and quiet. “I have a good friend, born and raised here, went to McNeil High School,” the driver added with a chuckle. ‘”He’s like, ‘I’ve been waiting 25 years for them to cancel SXSW.'”

Hugo and I follow a promoter’s Instagram page to a “secret” house music show at Empire Control Room downtown, where a DJ spins records on a stand wrapped in foamy gauze and a girl with Christmas lights trimming her corset go-go dances in front of the crowd. Our bartender greets us with a fist bump. “Can’t be too careful,” he said with a sigh, before handing us a cocktail menu.

This post will be updated.

Claire Shefchik is a writer and journalist in the British Virgin Islands, where she writers about travel, culture, and the “other side of paradise.” She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Seattle Times, Town and Country, Fodors, Atlas Obscura, Mental Floss, and more. Find her on Twitter at @clairels.