As I write this, the shelves at our local grocery stores are emptying out, shopping hours are being restricted, businesses are closing down all around us, and it feels like everybody in Austin is well and truly on edge. I share your concerns.
Everyone who works on Austin.com and Free Fun in Austin are locals, and most of us have lived in Austin for many years. We’ll be here for many more years to come, because we love this city and we love our neighbors. What happens here every day is special, and everyone who has been in central Texas for most of their life knows this to be true. But the unique spark is being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in alarming and unexpected ways, and these impacts have grown to the point that we must begin adapting our business.
So, let me tell you what we are doing now, and what we have planned for the future. Starting this week, Free Fun in Austin is temporarily suspending our regular event recommendation lists. “What’s Up, Weekly,” “Free Date Nights in Austin,” and “Weekend Top 10” will cease publication for a period of thirty days. We are doing this out of an abundance of caution, knowing well that city and state leaders may soon mandate the closure of all nonessential businesses. We are also aware that thirty days is a largely arbitrary number, and our event promotion hiatus may need to be extended well beyond this. We will make that decision by April 15.
While my decision to freeze publication of our regular event recommendation features is a painful one that will affect our traffic, the public interest outweighs our private interest in this case, particularly operating a business that specializes in sending people to other local establishments. In so doing, we are also holding our breath out of hope that city, state, and federal leaders will see fit to extend financial assistance to small business owners and workers impacted by this crisis. We are now officially among them.
I have been in communication with city health officials twice in recent days, and we will follow their recommendations as closely as possible. They may soon announce additional shutdowns, and we are preparing for that potential outcome. However, Austin.com and Free Fun in Austin will not voluntarily suspend our calendar services, which we consider to be the lifeblood of our business. Even so, should the City of Austin order us to shutter the calendars, please know that we will do so immediately and without warning.
If you submitted an event to the Austin.com or Free Fun in Austin calendar any time over the last two weeks, please know we have deleted your submission due to a cancellation rate that exceeded 80 percent. We make every effort to check that submissions to our calendar are accurate, but we simply do not have the personnel required to verify all of our listings a second time. If your event is still taking place despite all of the pandemic response developments, you may resubmit it now.
We are going to continue approving event submissions for the time being while also recommending that organizers stop planning in-person gatherings and focus on taking groups digital. I expect there will be an increasing number of these digital-only events moving forward, and when there are enough of them on our calendars we will implement a new regular column featuring digital event recommendations. Austin is a hyper-connected city full of innovative thinkers; I am certain we will lead the digital event space amid this pandemic.
In spite of these changes, the spirit of Austin.com and Free Fun in Austin remains steadfast. We view our websites as a public service first and foremost, and we remain committed to the people of our city. As such, we are developing new ways to have fun with our neighbors here in Austin, even without going outside. Free Fun in Austin in particular will serve as a digital destination for bored Austinites who miss interacting with their city during this time of social distancing. Stay tuned for lots of creative and unconventional content along those lines. And if you have any ideas for us — say, if you want to host a yoga class over video stream, or your weekly game night is going digital and you’d like to tell everyone about it, or you want a vector for sharing arts and crafts with the community — please let us know! Now, more than ever, we are looking to you for suggestions. We are at your service.
Meanwhile, we are evolving Austin.com to become more focused on local news, and we may even begin experimenting with new media types, like podcasting or VR. If you are a local blogger, podcaster, videographer, artist, musician, artisan, or communicator, there will be opportunities for you here so stay tuned. We want to use our domain to help our citizens communicate, which is why opening up the microphone will be a priority going forward. Watch for more announcements along these lines very soon.
Stay safe out there, and keep those hands clean. We’ll get through this together.
Stephen C. Webster