COVID-19

A month after SXSW cancellation, Austin businesses still assessing damage

Andy Uhler Apr 22, 2020
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Austinites who depend on the annual festival are hurting. Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

A month after SXSW cancellation, Austin businesses still assessing damage

Andy Uhler Apr 22, 2020
Austinites who depend on the annual festival are hurting. Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images
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The cancellation of South by Southwest was a defining moment for some — it was when the growing threat of COVID-19 got very real for a lot of people. Especially for the many Austinites who depend on the festival’s influx of cash.

Byron Mowery, owner of Graphics Guys, now commutes into an all-but-empty office on Austin’s West Side every day. Before the crisis, Mowery’s business wrapped vehicles and walls with promotional material for things like movies and concerts. Now, he’s producing different stuff.

“Fortunately, we found a way to stay essential by making these new social distancing signs: ‘We’re still open’ banners, ‘Please wash your hands,'” Mowery said.

Graphics Guys’ business is down 70% from last year. Mowery laid off almost all of his staff; he’s now doing most of the work solo. He’s applied for every piece of government assistance available, something very new for him.

“I’ve been self-employed for over 20 years and never had to ask for any type of money from the government, so this is a very awkward situation,” he said.

In East Austin, Brent Underwood isn’t worried about awkward situations. He owns and operates a 20-bed hostel, HK Austin, and applied for help from the government immediately.

“Because we only have one full-time employee, we got $1,000, which certainly is appreciated but doesn’t put that big of a dent in our monthly expenses,” Underwood said — particularly since he has no bookings right now and the hostel has been empty for the past month.

His bank is deferring his mortgage payments for three months, which will help keep his hostel afloat for a little while. He’s trying to stay positive, but knows he’s in for continued tough times.

“I don’t think people are going to start traveling or, particularly, staying in rooms with multiple beds anytime soon, so the future months are going to be interesting, for sure,” Underwood said.

“Interesting” is one way to put it. When 29-year old bartender Elizabeth Mathis thinks about how she’s getting by, a different word altogether springs to mind. “Unemployment,” she said.

She filed for benefits a month ago, the same day she found out that Javelina, the bar she worked at on Austin’s Rainey Street, was closing its doors. The unemployment office got back to her within 48 hours, letting her know she was also going to get SNAP benefits (food stamps) on top of unemployment pay.

“So, I’m able to pay all my bills and luckily my landlord is super kind and understanding and he was working with me if I needed to pay in payments,” she said.

She’s been spending her time taking pictures and painting, trying to build up an art portfolio. Ultimately, she wants a job in the arts. Bar-tending, she said, was just a way to pay the bills. But, she admits, she can’t wait to get back behind the bar, if and when things begin to normalize.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out recently from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

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