August 25, 2020

Why these researchers put on a 1,400-person concert—amid a pandemic

Daily Briefing

    Concert halls were among the first venues that many countries shut down when the novel coronavirus pandemic began. But now, as the pandemic has started to wane in some countries, a group of researchers is holding large, indoor concerts. Here's why.

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    Germany—which currently is seeing relatively low rates of coronavirus transmission when compared with some other countries, such as the United States—allows indoor performances with certain capacity restrictions and hygiene requirements intended to prevent the coronavirus' spread. In Leipzig, for instance, indoor events are permitted as long as there are fewer than 1,000 attendees and strict hygiene and physical distancing policies are enforced.

    But for a lot of concert venues, hosting events with small numbers of attendees does not bring in enough revenue to justify reopening—leaving some people to wonder whether there's a safe way to host larger events.

    Hoping to answer that questions, a team of researchers at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, called Restart 19, set out to study the potential risks of hosting large concerts during the pandemic by hosting some of their own.

    Stefan Moritz, head of the clinical infectious diseases department at the university and a lead on the researcher on the team, said the experiment aims to highlight exactly which elements of large, live performances pose the greatest health risks to attendees during the pandemic. "We know the personal contacts at the concert are risky, but we don't know where they happen," he said, asking, "Is it at the entrance? Is it at the bleachers?"

    For Restart 19's experiment, Moritz contacted German pop singer Tim Bendzko to help the team put on large-scale, live events that the researchers could study to determine where coronavirus transmission was most likely to occur. The researchers held three different concerts at the Quarterback Immobilien Arena in Leipzig over the course of 10 hours, with Bendzko as the headliner.

    During the first concert, the researchers enforced no physical distancing requirements. They enforced moderate distancing measures at the second concert, and strict distancing measures at the third. Each concert had 1,400 attendees who received face masks, tracking devices, and fluorescent disinfectant to intended to prevent the coronavirus' spread. The researchers also tested all of the volunteer attendees for the coronavirus in advance of the concert date and screened the attendees' temperatures at the venue.

    Each concert included an intermission, during which the attendees could use the facility's restrooms and visit food vendors.

    The researchers used the trackers given to the attendees to determine how often the attendees came in close contact to one another, and they used ultraviolet lamps to determine which surfaces in the arena were touched the most. To simulate the coronavirus' potential spread via aerosols, the researchers aimed a smoke machine toward the facility's rafters and watched particles spread throughout the arena. "It's so weird what happens with these movements of air," Mortiz said. "Things you wouldn't expect."

    'A first step toward normalcy'

    Moritz Restart 19 expects to release results from the study by late October. Further, Moritz added that researchers in Australia, Belgium, and Denmark are planning to execute similar studies.

    If the studies can help researchers determine which aspects of large, live performances put attendees at greatest risk for coronavirus transmission, their findings could help policymakers develop guidelines to restart such events while also limiting risk of the coronavirus' spread, researchers said.

    Philipp Franke, a manager at Quarterback Immobilien Arena, hoped that the study's results could lead to more indoor concerts and sporting events being allowed in the near future. "Cultural events are socially important," Franke said. "A society needs such events in order to find some fulfillment and an outlet."

    Overall, both Bendzko and the concert goers said the experience helped reassure them that normalcy was possible amid a pandemic.

    "We really had a lot of fun," Bendzko said. "We survived drive-in concerts this summer and in that respect, for us, this is a first step toward normalcy" (Rogers, New York Times, 8/23; Baker, "Vitals," Axios, 8/24; Associated Press, 8/22).

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