'We must set an example to prevent fear' – how San Francisco and Austin's giant tech conferences became the front lines that kicked off a frenetic fight against the coronavirus




  • San Francisco and Austin were faced with dilemmas as big conferences approached and coronavirus  emerged as a global threat.
  • The mayor of San Francisco wrote a letter to RSA Conference attendees urging them to “set an example to prevent fear, rumors, and misinformation from guiding our actions.” 
  • Two attendees of the RSA Conference contracted the virus and one – who returned to Connecticut and became his state’s first case – is seriously ill.
  • Austin officials searched for the right SXSW policies, telling registered attendees there was no conclusive evidence cancelling the event would make the city safer. Two days later, the city canceled the festival.
  • This account of the events that led to the conference cancellations, based on private communications and public statements, shows how two booming, tech-driven cities struggled to assess the threat of the coronavirus, and to balance public safety with business interests.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Just three weeks ago, as many Americans were beginning to wash their hands more frequently to fend off the novel coronavirus, the mayors of San Francisco and Austin were preparing to welcome thousands of visitors to their world-famous tech conferences.

Today, the residents of San Francisco, a city famous for its freedoms, are hunkered down in their homes in accordance with the most stringent restrictions in the nation. In Austin, the bars that would normally be packed with festive crowds for the South By Southwest festival are likely to stop serving altogether and lock the doors until the danger has passed.

The sudden and remarkable change that has transformed the two booming tech-driven American cities has caught residents, businesses and local officials by surprise, leaving them scrambling to adapt to a fast-changing situation. The confusion was especially visible in the lead up to several tech conferences scheduled for San Francisco and Austin — high-profile events that for many Americans would represent the first examples of the coronavirus crisis and the reality of its disruptive power.

Private communications reviewed by Business Insider, as well as public announcements from the period, reveal how officials in both cities struggled to assess the threat posed by the advancing virus, trying to safeguard important economic interests while weighing mounting evidence of the danger to public safety. 

The San Francisco mayor’s “amazing” letter of support

In San Francisco, the first big test came in mid-February, as the annual RSA cybersecurity conference approached. 

Tens of thousands of visitors from around the world were due to convene in San Francisco to discuss the latest trends in malware, hacking and computer viruses. On February 20, four days before the conference was scheduled to kick off, worries about the coronavirus were in the air, but the risk could still be dismissed as something that mainly concerned people in other countries.

There were no deaths in US at that point and the only people infected with the virus in the US had travelled to regions affected by the outbreak. Apple’s reduced earnings expectations on February 17 was major news, but the company ascribed the problem to disruptions to production and consumer demand in China.

Oracle World

Still, there was reason to re-evaluate whether a major conference in San Francisco was appropriate. Indeed, Facebook had already cancelled a marketing summit to be held in San Francisco earlier in the month. And sponsors of the RSA conference were beginning to drop out.  IBM pulled out on February 15 due to health concerns, and five days later, AT&T followed suit. 

The same day that AT&T dropped out, on February 20, San Francisco Mayor London Breed was still encouraging those registered for the RSA conference to come to San Francisco, working to downplay worries about the virus, and keeping in close contact with event promoters.

“Attached, please find the letter you requested from Mayor Breed offering continued support of the RSAC in San Francisco,” wrote Martha Cohen,  the Director of Special Events in Mayor Breed’s office in a February 20 email to marketers promoting the conference, according to communications obtained by Business Insider via the the California Public Records Act. Five city officials were cc’d on the email. 

“Thank you so much, Martha! They said the letter was ‘amazing.'” responded a marketer  promoting the conference. 

Mayor Breed’s letter, dated February 20, told attendees that “San Francisco is open for business and events are proceeding as planned. … We must set an example to prevent fear, rumors, and misinformation from guiding our actions.” The letter, which was quoted from and linked to on the official RSA conference website, noted that “the virus is not circulating in our community.”

“A healthy and safe event for all”

On Monday February 25, the RSA conference officially got underway at San Francisco’s Moscone event center. 

RSA President Rohit Ghai opened the conference with a keynote speech in which he offered “thanks to Mayor London Breed and her office for collaborating with our conference team to ensure a healthy and safe event for all.” 

Hours later Breed declared a state of emergency in San Francisco. In a surreal juxtaposition to the RSA president’s opening speech, the city’s director of health stood before the mic at a news conference and stressed that “this is not business as usual.”

San Francisco’s state of emergency was a pre-emptive move designed to prepare the city for what could be a major health crisis, and ensuring that the city could reassign staff and budget to take actions such as building shelters – and then be quickly reimbursed by the state and federal agencies. Compared to other cities and states which have been caught flat-footed by the virus, San Francisco’s early state of emergency is now being lauded as an example of smart and responsible policy. 

masks airport

But the city’s early action to protect the public from the virus was undercut by its business-as-usual attitude about the conferences slated to take place in San Francisco. 

On February 28, three days after the state of emergency declaration, Andy Lynch, a member of the mayor’s staff, told Business Insider in an email that “the City continues to encourage people to attend events and conferences.”

Among the conferences still on the calendar was the Game Developers’ Conference, one of the two largest video game industry events of the year, which drew 30,000 attendees in 2019, and was due to take place in March. Google Cloud, the biggest event of the year, was scheduled to take place in San Francisco in early April. 

As the scope of the coronavirus pandemic became more clear, the organizers of the Game Developers Conference and the Google Cloud event decided to pull the plug. 

The RSA cybersecurity conference would turn out to be the last major conference to take place in San Francisco before the coronavirus shutdown. 

Two attendees of the RSA conference have since tested positive for the virus, according to the conference and their employer, the cybersecurity firm Exabeam. One of the attendees, a father of twin babies from Connecticut, has been hospitalized with bilateral pneumonia and respiratory distress in a medically induced coma.

“The patient is believed to have contracted the illness while in California,” said a March 9 CtPost article that said the governor and other officials said he was “the first Connecticut presumptive positive case of coronavirus.”

In an interview with Business Insider on Thursday, Breed said the city has been “a leader in this issue in every step of the way, relying on facts, relying on data from some of the best health experts in the world.”

Breed did not address the letter she wrote supporting the RSA conference, but defended the decision to hold the conference and declined to take responsibility for the fact that two attendees have now developed the disease.

“The decisions that we made through the course of this evolving, very evolving situation … had everything to do with what we had at the time,” Breed said.

The RSA Conference supplied this web page for answers to questions. 

“The SXSW 2020 event is proceeding as planned”

In Austin, a state capital that sees fun as its right and where tourism employs around 10% of its roughly one million citizens, a tense drama unfolded over several weeks as the coronavirus and the South By Southwest festival were heading for the city on a collision course. 


Unlike the mixed messages and contradictions that colored San Francisco’s approach, Austin officials and SXSW organizers seemed unpersuaded by the mounting evidence that viruses and large gatherings don’t mix. 

On March 3, by which time nine people had died in the US, a South By Southwest employee wrote to a small company that had requested a refund. 

“We recognize the disruption that Coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused, and we sympathize with all affected,” the SXSW employee wrote in the letter, which was shared with Business Insider.

Nevertheless, the email continued, “The SXSW 2020 event is proceeding as planned. The World Health Organization’s recommendation is that travelers practice usual precautions … We hope to see you at SXSW 2020.” The refund was denied. 

But health guidance was changing rapidly. By March 3, the World Health Organization was urging anything but “usual precautions.” The day before, WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the virus was “unique,” that the world was in “uncharted territory,” and “There is no choice but to act now” on global containment measures. 

Austin officials repeatedly evaluated whether large gatherings were unsafe, and remained convinced that the threat was overblown.

“There is no evidence that closing South by Southwest or other activities is going to make this community safer,” said Dr. Mark Escott, interim medical director and health authority for Austin Public Health on March 4. At that point Mobile World Congress, Facebook’s F8 conference, and the Google IO conference among others had called off their shows, due to the virus. 


Austin Mayor Steve Adler echoed the same message March 4, saying: “At this point there’s no evidence to suggest that cancelling South by Southwest makes the community safer.”

Two days later, on March 6, Austin cancelled South By Southwest  — just one week before hundreds of thousands of attendees from around the world were due to descend upon the city. 

Austin officials said they carefully discussed many factors prior to cancelling South By Southwest, including the loss of health insurance by members of the Austin community if the festival was cancelled. Ultimately the city made the call to cancel because “We had evidence of increasing person to person spread in multiple communities,” Escott, the interim head of Austin Public Health, said. 

South By Southwest did not respond to requests for comment. 

Too close for comfort

More than 235,000 people have been infected with the coronavirus, and over 9,700 have died. The US has reported 165 deaths. 

What Austin and San Francisco did not know three weeks ago is that early adoption of social distancing saves lives. Since then, conclusive evidence has been released that shows cities must enact measures immediately to protect people. 

And conferences, which convene large numbers of people in a confined space and then spit them back out to their home regions, are particularly well-suited to spreading an infection disease like COVID-19.

SXSW Conference

On March 14, what would have been one of the biggest days of South By Southwest, the City of Austin prohibited all community gatherings in order to “mitigate the spread of COVID-19” because it “spreads through person-to-person contact, especially in group settings.”

And on Monday, San Francisco and other Bay Area counties in Northern California required citizens to stay in their homes and avoid contact with others, becoming the first metropolitan area in America to issue a “shelter in place” order. 

Both San Francisco and Austin depended upon conferences to support their local economies. Just two months before San Francisco’s predicament with the RSA Conference, CNBC disclosed an SF Travel Association email that cited a $64 million annual loss to the city because Oracle is moving its OpenWorld conference to Las Vegas. Austin says cancelling South By Southwest will have the crushing economic impact of a $350 million loss to Texas’ capital city, resulting in lost jobs and health insurance. 

The human cost of deadly diseases may be less estimable.

“Being quarantined home with two small infants all day with the inability to be in person at the hospital is hard,” wrote the wife of the RSA attendee who was in a coma in a Connecticut hospital on March 14. On Thursday she updated the GoFundMe page for her husband, noting that “while still on oxygen therapy, Chris is now breathing on his own. He is not out of the woods yet though, so we appreciate all the continued prayers.”

Additional reporting by Troy Wolverton

SEE ALSO: Coronavirus live updates: More than 235,000 people have been infected and more than 9,700 have died. The US has reported 165 deaths. Here’s everything we know.

Join the conversation about this story »