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Studies show promise of live music returning to the mainstage

A crowd at an evening concert
Credit: Pixabay (www.pixabay.com)

Could there really be an end in sight to the live music drought? Struggling venues and live music enthusiasts everywhere hope so. Recently, a study in Spain tested the COVID-19 infection rate across nearly 500 people who attended an indoor show with environmental modifications. With these modifications, researchers found that no one contracted the COVID-19 virus as a result of the concert.

What does this mean for the US? Researchers aren’t sure yet, but it could signal a light at the end of the tunnel for live music.

Germany first to kickstart research of mass gatherings

Back in August 2020, Germany began testing conditions for indoor live music. Across 1,400 audience members, the Restart 19 study simulated different configurations for distancing and ventilation. Additionally, participants consented to coronavirus testing prior to arrival, temperature checks at the door, and each wore a contact tracing devices to calculate potential exposures.

Similar to the study in Spain, pop music artists performed in the venue, but across 12 hours of shows instead of 5. Since guests were arranged in different seating patterns and dancing or singing weren’t as widely encouraged, this type of environment has obvious drawbacks for the rave scene. Chances are high that the glove light show won’t hit as hard if you’re arranged three diagonal seats apart.

According to the researchers who conducted the study, the risk of COVID-19 transmittal at such a concert is low. However, the study raises several flags. Researchers from around the globe drew criticisms of the experiment’s setup, calling into question how the infectious disease modeling was used. It’s also unclear how COVID-19 exposure tests were administered and tracked following the 10 hour concert.

While this particular case hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet and poses significant limitations of data quality, the more recent Spain study could offer to fill in some gaps.

Study in Spain shows low risk with proper precautions

In December just as vaccines began rolling out globally, an elaborate study testing the risk of mass gatherings took place in Barcelona. To start, the venue lowered capacity from 900 to 500, implemented strong ventilation, and enforced an N95 mask requirement. Before entering the venue, participants completed a rapid COVID-19 swab test.

Interestingly enough, the study purposely did not enforce social distancing measures that have been widely used to prevent the spread of the virus. Researchers wanted to create as close to a “normal” concert environment as possible. Other modifications included a separate eating/drinking area as well as separate smoking area, and arrows to control foot traffic congestion around exits and restrooms.

Even dancing and singing were encouraged, which may be surprising given what we now know about the transmission risk of being in close proximity to someone emitting a high number of droplets. But, the idea was to re-create a concert environment with only slight modifications to keep the feel of a concert as close to normal as possible.

It doesn’t seem like participants were too bothered by the precautions taken, either. Guests enjoyed a nearly 5 hour show with performances from four DJs and local bands. While traditional Spanish pop music isn’t quite the same as the rave scene we’re all waiting for back in the US, even rowdier dance music crowds could relish a show with similar environmental precautions. A post-event questionnaire revealed that the majority of the participants said they enjoyed the concert and didn’t feel too scrutinized by the security measures.

Eight days after the show, each guest repeated a second rapid COVID-19 swab test. Of the 463 participants who went to the show, none of them contracted the virus as a result.

While the conclusion is an exciting result for the hope of mass gatherings in the future, questions about its validity and replicability linger.

What does this mean for shows in the US?

So what does the research mean for us in the United States? We don’t know yet. But it’s clear we’ll need all hands on deck to make it happen. We need to continue all of the precautions we’ve taken so far, and prioritize safe shows before flocking en masse to clubs. As vaccination numbers rise, eventually herd immunity will ultimately play the biggest hand in re-opening live music.

Of course, vaccinating the US population is an entire other can of worms. As Washington state recruits the help of mega-corporation Starbucks to aid in distribution, it’s clear that there have been logistical challenges which includes mass distrust in the vaccine nationwide. As states continue to pursue alternate partnerships for vaccination and public faith in the vaccine itself rises, immunization rates in the population will climb. Slowly, restrictions will be rolled back and life can return to normal (-ish).

More research, more vaccines could lead to concerts sooner

You may remember a more chilling forecast last year towards the beginning of the pandemic which guessed concerts could take place fall 2021. Back then that estimate seemed devastating, but the timeline still seems like our best guess. One of the top US virus officials, Dr. Anthony Fauci, also backed this claim recently at the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) conference. Cautiously, he suggests “if everything goes right” we could return to live shows sometime this year.

Dr. Fauci also advocates for continued research of indoor gatherings, referencing the earlier study in Germany. By continuing to study virus transmission in different environments with different precautions, we can gauge how risky events are. Everyone’s anxious to get back to normal life, but we must continue keeping each other safe in the meantime. Echoing Dr. Fauci’s sentiments, “we’ll be back in the theaters — performers will be performing, audiences will be enjoying it. It will happen.”

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