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SXSW pop-ups and activations have hit and miss response to COVID-19 safety recommendations

The Cheetos Hands-Free House is open through March 15 at1209 E. 6th St. (CBS Austin)
The Cheetos Hands-Free House is open through March 15 at1209 E. 6th St. (CBS Austin)
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Tens of thousands of people are crowding into Downtown Austin for South by Southwest. Austin health experts okayed the festival saying they are not expecting it to significantly increase local COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

One reason for the optimistic attitude is that pop-ups and activations, like the Cheetos Hands-Free House, are requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to get in. The requirement isn't hurting turnout. Lines stretch down E. 6th Street. Once inside the popular space, crowd sizes are being limited to reduce any risk.

But at the halfway point of the 10-day festival, the number of companies and businesses following SXSW COVID-19 safety recommendations is hit and miss depending on where you go.

"I have been to some bars and this is the only place that has checked my vaccination card," said Melanie Gariety as she stood in line for the Cheetos Hands-Free House.

The immersive experience is a partnership between Cheetos and Amazon Alexa. The Hands-Free House takes guests into an innovative home that's completely hands-free, including tech-enabled entry, smudge-free remote controls and Alexa voice-controlled experiences like voice-activated appliances. The house tour ends in the backyard where guests can sample Cheetos-inspired cuisine, a hands-free vending machine and more hands-free surprises.

ALSO | Austin-Travis Co. EMS adds 20 medics downtown to prepare for busy SXSW week

Austin opened up and relaxed its COVID rules just before the start of the massive festival. On Tuesday, the Canadian sketch comedy troupe, Kids in the Hall, walked the red carpet for the premiere of their new documentary. For them, Austin has been an adjustment.

"This is thrilling but it's also kind of scary for us because we come from Canada which is not quite like this place," said Scott Thompson, Kids in the Hall.

"I keep touching my mask like a teddy bear," joked Kevin McDonald, Kids in the Hall.

"It's great to see people's faces. All these naked faces feels like people are streaking," said Dave Foley, Kids in the Hall.

Health experts recommend spending as much time as possible outside, like in the backyard area at the Cheetos House.

On Tuesday, CBS Austin talked to one of the leading COVID-19 experts in the country who just gave a virtual talk at SXSW. Dr. Peter Hotez says the timing of the festival couldn't be better.

"I am concerned with what's happening in Europe right now. We have the new variant and the cases are going back up again in Europe. So, this may be one of the few window periods for the next couple of months where you can have an event like SXSW in person," said Dr. Hotez.

Dr. Hotez says taking extra precautions like requiring vaccinations or proof of negative COVID tests is one way SXSW can avoid contributing to the spread of the virus. The COVID-19 expert says the new variant is more transmissible than omicron. While the numbers in Texas and the United States are low, he says they are starting to creep up.

The Cheetos Hands-Free House is open through March 15 at 1209 E. 6th St.

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