Back on August 22nd, German scientists conducted a concert experiment at the Quarterback Immobilien Arena in Leipzig with singer-songwriter Tim Bendzko. At the time, the scientists from Halle University in Germany stated that the results would be ready by early October, which felt like years away with nothing to look forward to on the calendar. On Thursday, the data were presented and the findings proved somewhat promising, though far from immediate.
In this experiment, 1,200 concertgoers came to a 12,000-person capacity indoor arena for a socially-distanced concert. Each person was required to wear a mask, and they were also equipped with matchstick-sized “contact tracers” around their necks that recorded the interception of germs. Attendees were also given a portion of fluorescent disinfectant that would leave trace particles detectable by UV light so that researchers could track high-contact areas.
Another crucial element of the experiment was the simulation of airflow. With the use of fog machines, researchers were able to simulate the spread of virus particles throughout the air. These results were then compared with a computer-generated model predicting the outcome of contact areas as well as the spread of airborne particles.
In their results presented to the university on Thursday, scientists found that it is, in theory, possible to safely hold large-scale, indoor events during the pandemic—though the successful execution of such an event would require the extensive implementation of a number of safety protocols.
One of the necessary protocols presented in the report is the necessity for staggered entry times. The research showed that the overall number of contacts lasting several minutes or more was quite low during the experiment, and that most of those interactions occurred during entry and breaks in the music. Planning for any indoor event with many attendees would need to account for staggered attendee entrance times to mitigate potential contacts at the point of entry.
Researchers also found that all of the potential hazards were exacerbated by poor ventilation. One of the hallmarks of the scientists’ recommendations was an emphasis on proper air ventilation throughout arenas, which could help deter the spread of germs and infectious disease.
As the study’s director, Dr. Stefan Moritz, surmised, “Therefore, events can take place even in a pandemic situation under certain conditions. The most important insight for us was the impact of a good ventilation technology, which is a key component when it comes to risk of contagion.”
Based on their findings, researchers came up with a list of recommendations including venues utilizing ventilation technology that allows for a regular exchange of air in the room, along with an evaluation system for what constitutes “adequate room air technology.” Additionally, as long as the pandemic continues, hygiene concepts would need to be in place, including the mandatory wearing of masks at all times and added staff to make sure the precautions are adhered to.
As for what attendees can do, the findings show that some of the highest contact areas are near concessions. Thus, concertgoers are encouraged to consume any concessions while sitting at their seats in order to prevent the spread of germs. This poses problems of its own, as it encourages people to remove their masks to consume their concessions, seemingly violating the previously established “mandatory masks at all time” stipulation. Seating plans and venue capacities would also need to be reworked, and venues would need to open up multiple points of entry and introduce outdoor waiting areas to replace the indoor ones.
While the study appears to show that a safe indoor concert model could exist within the restrictions of the ongoing pandemic, it is important to consider the circumstances of this experiment versus the reality of a live concert. The participants in this study had all agreed to the various rules and protocols ahead of time. They were also all aware that they were being closely monitored by discerning scientific observers, which likely led to all of them being on their “best behavior.” The findings clearly qualify the claim that “events can take place” with the “under certain conditions” caveat, and those perfect conditions are far less attainable in practice at a normal show than in a highly-controlled concert environment like the one studied here.
Furthermore, staggered entry times and mask mandates may be attainable in the short term, but purchasing and installing a ventilation system that can hold up to the findings’ standards is a costly, time-consuming endeavor that simply won’t be in the cards for most venues—particularly after having been closed for business all year. Then, there’s the human element—for this model to hold true in practice, every attendee would have to follow every protocol at all times. Any slip-ups—an unexpected hug from that old friend you ran into, a high-five from the guy walking by—could disrupt even the most careful planning and enforcement of safety protocols in terms of virus transmission.
As for the participants in the experiment themselves, 90 percent of those surveyed following the event stated that they didn’t mind the extra procedures or wearing a mask for the entirety of the show. Most stated that the added precautions were worth it to be able to attend events again. As for the side of event producers, the study concluded that if they stick to the hygiene protocols laid out, their events can have little- to hardly-any impact on the spread of the pandemic.
The German coronavirus concert experiment illustrated that, under specific circumstances, it may be possible to safely hold large-scale indoor shows during the pandemic—a promising notion for fans and artists alike. In practice, however, the idea is still quite difficult to attain, and with new cases skyrocketing around the country in recent weeks—we broke the national record for the most new cases in a single day today—it would be wise not to hold your breath for a truly COVID-safe indoor arena show any time soon.
Read the full study here.