Austin After being canceled in 2020 and functioning as a virtual festival in 2021, SXSW returns this month. Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
After SXSW’s cancellation in 2020 marked the beginning of the pandemic for Austin, local restaurants are looking ahead to the festival’s return with a healthy mix of optimism and uncertainty
Ask anyone in Austin when they knew the COVID pandemic would drastically change the city, and they will likely point to the cancellation of the city’s biggest festival, South by Southwest (SXSW), in 2020. That decision by the City of Austin — announced just one week before the festival was scheduled to take place — became the opening salvo of the ongoing pandemic that has resulted in the closure of over 90,000 restaurants across the country.
With the rise of the omicron variant in November leading to a spike in cases across the U.S. in December and January, many have held their breath and wondered openly about the state of SXSW for 2022. And as the festival is set to return with a hybrid in-person and virtual format this week, Austin restaurants, venues, and food workers are looking ahead to the events of the coming weeks with a healthy mix of optimism and uncertainty.
“It seems like we’re in a transition to this becoming a recurring sickness like the flu,” says Miguel Cabos, the co-owner of Mexican restaurant Vaquero Taquero, which opened a downtown location during the pandemic. The restaurant will still follow whatever guidelines are in place, “but we have no control over the masses that are showing up.”
Even two years into a pandemic, there are plenty of COVID questions without answers. As of early March, Austin and Travis County have moved past the omicron surge and shifted to Stage 2 of its coronavirus risk-based guidelines. But while Austin Public Health continues to offer separate recommendations for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, both sets still recommend masking in travel situations. Although SXSW requires participants to vaccinate or test to maintain their badges, Texas state law still prevents local agencies from instating formal COVID rules, leaving the businesses that will serve this massive international event to operate under a cloud of incertitude. At the same time, public demand for COVID protections has declined in recent months. This makes SXSW just the latest wrinkle in an ever-evolving pandemic-era business environment.
“The reality is, there’s an inherent risk in what we’re doing, period,” admits Eric Silverstein, the founder of Asian-Southern restaurant and catering company Peached Tortilla. “The best thing we can do as a company is to protect our staff,” he says, emphasizing health care and vaccine access as the best line of defense. Shawn Cirkiel of downtown New American restaurant Parkside also highlighted the importance of his team’s in-house efforts, including following safety rules and providing health care. “I think that, ultimately, that’s really our best opportunity” for staying safe, he says.
The Peached Tortilla catering staff at an event before the pandemic began. » Read More