Restart 19

Science with a soundtrack

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

To be a citizen of the world on the global rollercoaster ride that is COVID-19 is to ride the highs of encouraging news and advancing science and plunge into the lows of the virus’ far-reaching effects on so much of who and what we hold dear.

Like so many people I know, I manage my fear and confusion both about the disease itself and its effects upon society by keeping up with the shifting science of it as well as the mandates that emerge from the accumulation of research and data. While science deniers will be quick to tell you that research can’t be trusted, scientists are often wrong, etc., those of us who put our faith in science know full well that COVID is a wily beast and if the stakes weren’t so high this would all be a fascinating lesson in how science evolves in real time.

Because much is unknown—especially in a country like the United States that has experienced a vacuum of leadership at the national level, causing our pandemic response to be piecemeal and lack cohesion—rules that attempt to control the virus and mitigate its spread can seem arbitrary and confusing. This is true even in our state, where leadership has been clearheaded, consistent and informed by current scientific data.

However, one point the entire world is in seeming agreement on is in the pantheon of once-safe activities that are now fraught with danger, few things are more treacherous than concerts.

I need not outline the reasons why. They’re self-evident—so much so that music venue owners and operators, facing the possibility of a near-total industry-wide catastrophe that could leave no corner of their industry untouched, are largely in agreement that the risk they pose to society at large in being open is far greater than the risk to them in remaining closed until some far-off safe point in the future.

But when that distant day comes that we can once again entertain the possibility of live entertainment, what will concerts even look like? What kind of safety measures will have to be put in place? How extensive will they be? What will have to be done to keep concertgoers safe?

So far, when addressing safety concerns in other industries—restaurants and hair salons come to mind—regulations seem to rely a bit on existing data and far more on winging it while erring heavily on the side of caution. That strategy has proven largely successful, but I’m not sure anyone believes the methods used at your favorite eatery can be extrapolated to a music venue that holds hundreds or even thousands of people.

In light of that, the question becomes: If you can’t gather large groups of people together because the risk is too high, how do you then assess the risks of gathering large groups of people together?

Maybe instead of COVID-19, the virus should be renamed CATCH-22.

However, scientists in Germany wanted to tackle this problem, and with the help of 1,400 volunteers and one German pop singer, they recently did just that.

Researchers from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg staged a concert that was also a risk-assessment study dubbed Restart 19. The chose a venue in Leipzig, the Quarterback Immobilien Arena (normal concert capacity 12,200), booked pop singer Tim Bendzko (platinum recording artist and former Bundesvision Song Contest winner, pictured here), and put out a call for volunteers.

About 1,400 masked music fans showed up and before they were allowed into the venue, they went through a much more thorough entry process than the standard hand-stamp and cursory bag-search that happens at the doors of many shows. First, they had to produce results of a negative COVID test before their temperature was taken and they were outfitted with digital location trackers and disinfectant mixed with fluorescent dye. Once inside, they spent the next 10 hours watching Bendzko perform while simulating a trio of concert-going scenarios: one with strict social distancing measures, one with moderate safety measures, and one with no social distancing required. They made trips to restrooms and snack bars as they would at a regular concert, and at one point a smoke machine was used to try and assess how the virus, which scientists have determined has aerosolized, spreads through the air in such an environment.

The scientists who performed the study (not to be confused with the pop star who performed the concert) say the results from their scientific experiment with a live soundtrack won’t be available until October at the earliest. But the findings could help the concert industry determine what crowd-control and COVID-19 safety measures to put in place with greater certainty than what comes from winging it and hoping for the best. And for an industry currently shrouded in literal and figurative darkness, every bit of light helps.

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