Billboard spoke to TV's Dr. Mehmet Oz and two event safety experts about how fans can keep themselves safe if they're going out to shows during this fraught era and what the industry's plans are to mitigate fear and maximize security. "The best rule of thumb is the arm's length rule, which is that you should try to keep people that far from you," the cardiothoracic surgeon and Emmy-winning host of The Dr. Oz Show tells Billboard. "The virus doesn't pass necessarily by people sneezing on you, it passes from them touching something that you touched, so the biggest risk is not the person a seat down from you, it's the person who was in the seat before who coughed on [it]."
With that in mind, Oz says you can be in a crowd at a show, especially if you keep in mind the data on who is at the most risk from COVID-19: people under 50 years old have a less than 1% chance of dying, while the rate jumps to 1.3% for those 50-59, triples for those 60-69 (3.6%) and doubles again for those 70-79 (8%). To keep that in perspective, the mortality rate for for those under 50 is half that of the seasonal flu, which is expected to kill between 20,000-52,000 Americans this year. "You wouldn't cancel concerts because of the flu," says Oz, who cautions that those over 50 should be careful, especially if they have high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes or lung issues.
"Under 50, if you're low risk or don't have those risk factors, I think you can take the chance [of going to concerts] because 80% of the time you will have very mild symptoms and you'll be fine," he says. As for why so many events are being canceled, Oz says part of that is a deep psychological dread embedded in humans that a virus like this could wipe out humans in the way the Spanish flu and Black Plague did, which could lead to fear-based decision-making.
Oz dispensed essentially the same common-sense advice as lawyer Steven Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance: Relax and do the things you would normally do to keep yourself disease-free. Both men say it's wise to wash your hands thoroughly for 20 second or more (long enough to sing "Happy Birthday" twice), make generous use of the alcohol-based hand sanitizer that all venues should have on tap already, and when you sneeze or cough do it into your arm, not your hands.
"This is also a great opportunity to get in touch with how other cultures greet people, maybe learn how to bow correctly, put your hands in front of you in a respectful greeting," says Adelman, who like many experts suggested that high-fiving, handshaking and other direct-contact hand-to-hand greetings should be put aside for now. "If you see someone who is hocking up a lung, move away," he says. "If you're on the floor at a concert, carry on as you normally would, but also be smart, so if you like moshing or crowd surfing, do that. But after you're done, maybe hit the restroom and give it a good hand wash, find some hand sanitizer and put some on your hands and maybe get under the fingernails."
If you need more encouragement to keep your distance, Oz says a "firm handshake" transmits 10 times more virus than a fist bump, and though it takes away some of the joy of attending a live event, until there's a vaccine the new normal should not include those celebratory high fives either. "The vaccine will take that fear away, but in the meantime our minds will have to get used to new habits," Oz says.
At press time there was a report from New Zealand that a man who had attended a Tool concert at Spark Arena in Auckland was under self-isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 and that health officials there had reached out to anyone who might have been exposed to the virus during the show. That kind of story is exactly why Mark Herrera, the director of education & life-safety at IAVM (International Association of Venues Managers) and co-chair of the Department of Homeland Security's Commercial Facilities subsection has been convening a task force this week to give his members a best-practices guidebook to navigating in these uncertain times.
"The most important thing for our industry is the health and well-being of the public, that is the number one goal," says Herrera, stressing that many organizations that put on conventions and trade shows such as SXSW need to make decisions about whether to move forward or postpone based on factual, verified information and valid data. "Sometimes we have a tendency to overreact... it's about finding out how this virus might affect the entire industry and [asking] if it really is truly affecting it."
To that end, Herrera is helping to spearhead a working group in conjunction with DHS that is holding meetings and doing research to gather facts about the virus' impact with a goal of giving venues the tools to prepare for a possible global pandemic. He's confident that the measures his group is already taking -- such as placing plenty of anti-bacterial stations, emphasizing the same preparations his members take for flu season and reminding patrons that if they start feeling ill they let someone know, remove themselves from that environment and quarantine themselves -- should be followed at this time.
Herrera and IAVM plan to have an industry advisory group streamline relevant, factual information in conjunction with the federal government to codify precautionary proper measures before events. Asked if it is safe to go to mass gatherings such as concerts and festivals now, Herrera -- who was attending a meeting of venue safety and security professionals in Las Vegas with more than 150 members who flew in from all over the world -- says that common sense should rule at this point. "There is not enough facts or evidence to indicate that massive crowds will be affected at this point," he says, echoing the other expert's advice to keep your hands clean and avoid anyone who appears sick.
He also cautions against one other key thing that Oz mentions: leave the masks to professionals. "This virus is not as lethal as many feared, but it is extraordinarily contagious," says Oz, who notes that the paper masks that are readily available don't work and the ones that would work are nearly impossible to get at this point and should be saved for those who are already sick and health care providers.
"This was going to happen anyway... if not this year than a year after and there will be more in the future," says Oz. "Let's get past this and pull the Band-Aid off and start dealing with what the new order looks like because we still want to have fun. We don't want people making decisions out of fear, because that's not who we are as Americans, we're can-do people... We're innovative enough people that we'll figure it out, and concerts are a great testing ground."