The eventual return of indoor concerts might be safer than we think

The Sounds performing a live show: When will indoor concerts be safe during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Photo via The Zender Agenda/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Live music seems like one of the last events likely to return in a post-pandemic world, given the close proximity of screaming fans at concerts. After months of canceled music festivals, closed venues, and virtual gigs, however, new research has people wondering if indoor concerts are safe to attend during the pandemic.

In early November, German researchers published results from a staged indoor concert. The research found the risk of COVID-19 spreading at such events to be “low to very low,” so long as venues mandate masks and provide adequate ventilation and hygiene protocol. 

Soon after the release of the research, followed by positive vaccine news from Pfizer and Moderna, Ticketmaster provided updates on its development of a verification system. The system could use Ticketmaster’s digital ticketing app to track the vaccination and coronavirus infection status of concertgoers. Together, the two stories have some within the live music industry believing indoor live music could be safer than initially thought, even though singing tends to transmit the virus rather easily.  

The concert study

In August, researchers from Germany’s Martin Luther University staged a simulated indoor concert that brought close to 1,400 people into one of the largest indoor venues in Leipzig, Germany. Concertgoers were tested for COVID-19 prior to arrival and had their temperatures checked at the door. Over a period of 10 hours, masked attendees were taken through a number of scenarios that manipulated the venue environment to determine ideal conditions for safe indoor events. 

Guests were given hand disinfectant laced with fluorescent dye to examine which surfaces were touched most over the day. They were seated in three different formations: not distanced, partially distanced in a checker box formation, and strictly distanced. 

Researchers say the safest conditions were when concertgoers were masked and strictly distanced and when the venue implemented an adequate ventilation system. This model had jet nozzles on the roof above the arena’s highest rows, which sent fresh air through to the inner floor of the arena. Under these conditions, people were 10 times less likely to be exposed to an infectious person’s aerosols than if fresh air was sucked into the arena from the rooftop and the jet nozzles were switched off. In a similar scenario, participant infection risk was 70 times lower than health and safety protocols at pre-pandemic concerts. 

“We knew that ventilation was important but we didn’t expect it to be that important,” Dr. Michael Gekle, a researcher at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg who helped conduct the study, said. He added the most important condition is circulating as much clean air as possible to produce lower transmission rates at indoor events. 

In one scenario modeled by scientists, infection risk for participants and their contacts was around 70 times lower when health and safety instructions were followed, compared to what it could have been with pre-pandemic behavior. This suggests that attending indoor concerts could be a relatively safe practice, with proper protocol in place.

“There is no argument for not having such a concert. The risk of getting infected is very low,” Dr. Gekle said. “A concert or handball game with a strictly enforced safety protocol is safer than the participation in a big wedding.”

The Ticketmaster app

Positive trials of the Pfizer vaccine followed release of the research, prompting Ticketmaster to announce its work toward technology that will tie concertgoers’ vaccine status to their Ticketmaster digital ticket app. According to Billboard, the ticketing giant hopes to team with health information companies like CLEAR and IBM’s Digital Health Pass to link people’s vaccine status to their digital tickets. This could ensure that everyone entering an event is virus-free. The FDA has yet to approve third party sharing of real-time vaccination results, but many within the event space are pushing for it. 

Once approved, these apps could add assurance to the safety of live events, despite some industry experts remaining skeptical of the German study. 

Dr. Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, said the findings could be “useful.” He noted that it will likely be difficult to reproduce the kind of controlled environment developed for the study on a mass scale, however.  

“In order for live events to return, technology and science are going to play huge roles in establishing integrated protocols so that fans, artists, and employees feel safe returning to venues,” Marianne Herman, co-founder of reBUILD20, said.

Sources: New York Times, Billboard

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