August test event for 1,200 concertgoers found that proper ventilation was the key to keeping risk low at seated indoor shows.
LONDON — With music concerts still off-limits in the vast majority of countries, a German University study looking at how coronavirus spreads indoors could offer a welcome glimmer of hope for the struggling live industry.
According to research conducted by professors at the University Medicine Halle (Saale), the risk of getting infected with COVID-19 at an indoor seated concert falls somewhere between “low and very low,” as long as a venue is properly ventilated and adequate hygiene measures are in place.
For the safe return to live music, the researchers recommended proper ventilation systems that regularly exchange air, compulsory use of face masks for all concertgoers, multiple entrance and exit points and eating food in seating areas to avoid long periods of contact at snack bars.
The scientists’ findings are based on research carried out on Aug. 22 at a live music concert by singer-songwriter Tim Bendzko attended by 1,200 people at the Quarterback Immobilien Arena in Leipzig.
The controlled study, called RESTART-19, took place over 10 hours, which included bathroom and simulated food and beverage breaks. Attendees took part in a number of different social distancing scenarios, including no restrictions, checkerboard pattern seating and strict distancing of 1.5 meters (about five feet).
Prior to the concert, attendees needed to test negative for the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and had their temperatures checked upon entry. Each participant was then given a digital contact tracer and hand disinfectant laced with a fluorescent dye, which were used to measure physical interactions during the show and intermissions.
Air-flow simulations were also carried out using a fog machine to calculate audience exposure to aerosol droplets, while researchers developed a computer model of the arena to simulate aerosol distribution and resulting exposure. Concertgoers were required to wear face masks (FFP2) throughout, and hygiene stewards were on hand to ensure safety protocols were followed.
After analyzing the data, the professors leading the study concluded that live music events can safely take place under specific conditions during a pandemic without substantially endangering concertgoers.
“The most important finding for us was understanding how crucial it is to have good ventilation technology,” Dr. Stefan Moritz, who led the study, said in a statement. “This is key to lowering the risk of infection.”
Moritz’s team found that the most effective ventilation model utilized jet nozzles to “substantially increase the airflow” around the concert arena, reducing the density of aerosols. When the jet nozzles were switched off, the maximum number of exposed people per infectious person rose from 10 to 108.
Participants’ digital tracers revealed that contact with other concertgoers (measured as contact within a radius of 1.5 meters) was at its highest during entry and exit of the arena – and at food and drinks breaks — but few interactions lasted more than 15 minutes. Social distancing measures significantly reduced the number of contacts between concertgoers.
Using a model of 200,000 people attending indoor live music concerts in a given month, the researchers predicted that fewer than 10 infections would occur among concertgoers, provided the venue was sufficiently ventilated, social distancing measures were in place and all attendees wore face masks.
The infections which occurred at the event could start further infection chains, researchers say, but their contribution to the overall number of detected cases would be just 1-2% of all infections.
In contrast, when none of the hygiene measures were applied and there was poor ventilation, many more infections could occur at the event, increasing the proportion of related cases to 23%.
The study, which was funded by the states of Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, has yet to be peer reviewed and has been met with skepticism by some experts. Dr. Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, told The New York Times that the findings were potentially “useful,” but it might be difficult to replicate the controls that the researchers had used at real-life events.
The study results also come as most major European countries have enacted new lockdowns to stem surging numbers of coronavirus cases. New restrictions put in place over the last week on gatherings in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands have put a stop to any resumption of live concerts at least through December.
Nevertheless, execs from across the live industry are monitoring the results of the German research study – and others currently taking place in the world – with interest as they continue to revise a roadmap for the return of full-capacity music concerts. In the Netherlands, Fieldlab Events, a government-backed initiative representing the events sector, has sought approval from Dutch ministers to conduct pilot events there with rapid testing.
“The events industry, in particular, must be equipped with the knowledge and strategies it needs to be able to responsibly organize concerts, festivals and trade fairs despite Corona,” Armin Willingmann, Germany’s Minister of Science, says in a statement. He praised the research team behind RESTART-19 for their pioneering work, but he cautioned that the road to “a new normal is very long.”
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