The Show Must Go On: Coronavirus, Science, and Being in the Audience

Debbie says:fans milling about and queuing up to the bar in COVID-19 experiment

There is nothing good about the COVID-19 pandemic. Period. That being said, for science geeks, the experimental designs and hypotheses can be fascinating. Also, many if not most of us feel the pull to return to whatever indoor public spaces and large groups we love, whether those are sports events, movie theaters, conferences, or whatever. The ones I miss the most are live theater performances. So this detailed and complex German experiment in safe concert-going caught my eye. Nadine Schmidt and Amy Woodyatt report for CNN:

Researchers in the German city of Leipzig staged a 1,500-person experimental indoor concert on Saturday to better understand how Covid-19 spreads at big, busy events, and how to prevent it.

At the gig, which featured a live performance from musician Tim Bendzko, fans were given respiratory face masks, fluorescent hand gel and electronic “contact trackers” — small transmitters that determine the contact rates and contact distances of the individual experiment participants.

One thing that interests me is the experimental design in three formats:

Researchers directed volunteers to run three scenarios — one that simulated a concert pre-coronavirus, a second simulating a concert during the pandemic, with improved hygiene measures in place, and a third, with reduced participants. Scientists will gather the data, apply a mathematical model, and evaluate the hygiene interventions, with conclusions ready by the end of the year.

No one is denying that the participants–and the performers–were taking risks. However,

[Professor Michael] Gekle [professor of physiology and dean at University of Halle, and the lead researcher] told CNN that due to a low prevalence of the virus in the states of Saxony and Lower Saxony, participating in the study was low risk for volunteers, who underwent coronavirus testing 48 hours before participation, and were wearing masks during the show. “It’s safer than flying to Majorca,” he said.

No one can know either what this experiment will show, or how live indoor events in the future will pan out. Speculation is rife everywhere, of course, and so is the hunger for the old normal.

Elli Blesz, 20, from Leipzig told CNN: “The atmosphere was really great, we all enjoyed the music — it was nice to listen to live music after six months.”

And Kira Stuetz, a 26-year-old student who attended the concert with her husband, said: “It was a little crazy.” Recalling one of the pre-coronavirus simulations, where audience members sat together, she said that “at first it almost felt wrong all people came so close together. We thought this ‘is a dream’ because it’s not allowed to be sitting together so close! But then it was really cool. I could not believe it that we were at a real concert again!”

While I sit at home and occasionally watch my beloved theater on Zoom, I’ll be watching for the results of this experiment. As long as they are careful and thoughtful, I hope to see more trials like this in the near future.

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