All of you here today are helping save the world,” said singer-songwriter Tim Bendzko to a crowd of about 1,500, not a hint of irony or pathos in his voice. “This song is for you.” The audience roared in recognition at the first bars of the artist’s platinum-selling hit single “Nur mal kurz die Welt retten” (“Just Save the World for a Moment”).
Or rather, they tried to roar. What came out was a muted cheer, muffled by masks worn by all concert goers.
This performance, held Aug. 22 at the Quarterback Immobilien Arena in Leipzig, Germany, was not a case of a music venue flouting public health concerns in order to get back to business. All the fans were volunteers, part of Restart-19, a study to see if and how big cultural and sporting events can be held safely in the era of COVID-19. The daylong experiment was set up by scientists to try and understand why mass events are so effective at spreading the novel coronavirus and how organizers can act to minimize the risk. All participants received COVID-19 tests less than 48 hours before the concert, and only those with negative results, and who passed the temperature scan at the entrance, were allowed in the building.
In addition to the face masks, each attendee wore a digital location tracker — a small black box about the size of a cigarette pack — which monitored the number of “critical contacts” made by each participant, whom they came in contact with and for how long during the course of the day. Participants also received bottles of hand disinfectant laced with a fluorescent dye.
Scientists can identify — with the help of ultraviolet light — what surfaces they touched and what areas are potential hotspots for spreading the virus. The scientists also are modeling the movement of air through the arena to see how changes in the ventilation system could affect the spread of coronavirus-infested aerosols.
“At the moment we have no good data about how people behave at concerts or other big indoor events,” says Michael Gekle, dean at the University Medical Center of Halle, which organized Restart-19. “The purpose of this experiment is to get scientific evidence to help make reliable predictions as to the risk of additional infections related to such an event.”
Hard scientific evidence is what is needed if the global events industry is to get back on its feet. LiveNation, the world’s largest concert organizer, said Aug. 5 that earnings showed a 98 percent drop in revenue in the quarter ending June 30 — to $74 million — and a $588 million loss, compared with $176 million in profit at the same time last year. The company presented just 24 concerts in North America between April and June, at the height of the COVID19 shutdown. That compares with more than 7,000 events in the second quarter of 2019. LiveNation says it has presold 19 million tickets for more than 4,000 concerts and festivals scheduled for 2021. The big question — for LiveNation and the entire events industry worldwide — is: Can those concerts be held without a major risk of coronavirus infection?
That’s what the experiment in Leipzig hopes to find out. Inside the arena, researchers ran three separate scenarios to find out how crowds at concerts behave and see what safety measures are most effective in reducing coronavirus transmission. The first simulated a pre-coronavirus world, with the volunteer fans packed in a section of the arena with no social distancing. The second tracked crowd behavior with some social distancing and more entrance and exit points to reduce crowd crush. The third involved full social distancing and a 50 percent reduction in arena capacity, a model that organizers say would be “financially unsustainable” if it were applied in the real world.
Ahead of the study, critics were quick to dismiss its potential findings, arguing the experiment would not reflect real-world conditions. “Of course we would have liked to do an experiment where the arena was full and people were drinking alcohol, but the health authorities wouldn’t allow it,” says Gekle. “This is the first step.”
Matthias Kölmel, managing director of the Leipzig Arena, welcomes this undertaking amid a precarious financial situation for live venues: “At the moment, the biggest problem is we can’t make any plans. People say, ‘Wait for the vaccine,’ but when is there going to be a vaccine? And what if there isn’t one?” If arenas and venues like his aren’t able to open up again before year’s end, warns Kölmel, there will be a flood of bankruptcies.
Noted LiveNation: “events need to return in a safe and responsible way, and we know there will be a variety of approaches and methods to get us there. Live events contribute to both the culture and the economy of our communities, and it’s great to see local officials collaborating with the live industry to understand the best paths forward.”
Restart-19 is the first study of its kind in the world, according to Dr. Stefan Moritz, the lead researcher on the experiment. But he noted that labs in Australia, Belgium, and Denmark have already contacted him and are planning similar projects of their own. “So we’ve succeeded in our goal of getting scientists to study this,” says Moritz, adding that additional studies can only help complement and strengthen their own results.
The team behind the indoor experiment expects to present their findings this month, in time for governments to enact regulations for the winter season. For now, many live events operators are aiming for other options amid the pandemic, like drive-in concerts. But, says Bendzko: “They don’t pay the rent. We need to find a way to get back to where we can hold big concerts and do so safely.”