Around 9:30 p.m. March 14, a handful of revelers on electric scooters cut looping paths through the center of Sixth Street. A pair of young women decked in mint green tulle and leprechaun top hats sauntered by shot bars, and a trio of young entrepreneurs peddled photo ops with boa constrictors for $10 a pop.
But at the beginning of spring break, as the mayor issued a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people and many Austinites focused on bolstering their pantry stocks instead of partying, the normally bustling pedestrian thoroughfare was far quieter than usual.
Over in the Red River Cultural District, the heart of Austin’s live music scene, clubs should have been celebrating one of their busiest nights of the year. Instead, the intersection of Red River and Seventh streets was eerily quiet.
"We had about 100 people in here for a drag show last night and people were saying this was one of the busiest spots downtown," said Isi, the doorman at Elysium.
In the wake of the cancellation of South by Southwest, which would have begun on March 13, venue owners and promoters had rallied to create a homegrown alternative event series called "We Can Do Magic." They planned to fill the district with hand-washing and sanitizer stations and double each club’s budget for cleaning.
"People worked really hard and the lineups were pretty amazing," Graham Williams, head of the local music production company Margin Walker Presents, said on Sunday.
"There were people I was talking to who were like, ‘Man, my new lineup is better than my South by lineup.’"
But as public understanding of the coronavirus pandemic evolved and national health experts urged Americans to practice social distancing to help contain the spread of the virus, the plan began to collapse before festivities even kicked off.
"Every few hours, every day, a different band would cancel and then two bands would cancel," Williams said. "So as we're, like, pushing this boulder up the hill, other boulders keep falling down and knocking us back."
On March 12, Félix Pacheco from the popular Latin funk band Cilantro Boombox announced his band’s decision to drop out of a show scheduled for March 15 at Empire.
"I have spent the last week or so combing through facts and fear based speculations," he wrote on the band’s Facebook page. Though most of the members of his group are part of a low-risk demographic, he wrote, "many close to us are not that lucky."
He went on to say that the band had a "visceral need" to play music and "entertain and make people happy."
"However, I do not feel getting people in tight spaces where the risk of transmission is exponentially higher is the responsible thing to do," he wrote.
"It’s time for us to make some tough decisions," Nakia Reynoso, founder and president of the local trade organization Austin Texas Musicians, said in a statement posted to social media on the morning of March 13.
"Our jobs put us front and center in public spaces, sharing gear and shaking hands and because most of us struggle just to make ends meet day to day working multiple jobs, we are among the most vulnerable of our neighbors. Simply put — we cannot afford to get sick," he wrote.
Reynoso said after working behind the scenes with city officials and seeking advice from medical professionals, the best advice his group could offer was to "stay home as much as you can and take care of yourselves."
"We implore you not to play any free shows and consider heavily any gig you are being offered or already have scheduled," he wrote.
Around 2 p.m. March 13, Red River Cultural District club Barracuda, normally an epicenter of activity during SXSW, announced plans to cancel all shows at the club through March 23.
"We’re humbled by our creative community and the support we’ve received to try to make this still happen, but safety comes first," a Facebook post to the club’s official account read.
Williams’ company Margin Walker followed, announcing a decision to cancel or postpone all shows through late March later that evening. By the afternoon of March 14, Empire had canceled the remainder of a four-day Music Tech Mashup party, and Cody Cowan, head of the Red River Cultural District Merchant’s Association, said that "98% of folks are closed or just open for bar business."
Under normal circumstances, the 10 days of SXSW are so busy that venues "build their year around it," Williams said.
Music venues operate on razor thin margins and many downtown clubs are expected to pay double rent to their landlords in March.
"I don't know how they’ll make it," Williams said.
Losing SXSW was already a blow. Now, with capacity for public gatherings capped at 250 through May 1, step two is "how do you get past the next two months canceled?" Williams said, adding that most tours for the next month and a half have been postponed.
On March 14, Elysium hosted House of Mab, a dark fantasy ball that was on its schedule long before SXSW was canceled. Inside the club, partygoers wore elaborate costumes with billowing gowns and curled horns. One man walked through the club on stilts. Though the crowd was still sparse around 10 p.m., Isi, the doorman, said the club had sold 120 advance tickets and he expected the club would fill up later.
He said club staff are watching what is going on with event cancellations and state and local disaster declarations. Club staff are taking precautions, but they hope business will continue, he said.
"We’re going to stay open as long as we can," he said.