How To Get (some of) Us Back To Work
I sent this document to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden on the 1st July. Receipt was acknowledged but not specifically replied to. I sent it again to Caroline Dinenage, Minister for Digital and Culture, on the 12th August but again have never received a response.
Hard to make any progress with this muddled, uninformed and lacklustre UK Government. I am so sad for all of us in this now extremely precarious industry of Arts and Entertainment and sad for our audiences too.
CURRENT REALITIES AS TO COVID-19 INFECTION SPREAD AT ENTERTAINMENT VENUES
The position is, especially applied to entertainment venues, that the greater likely in situ source of infection is from small aerosol droplets - especially indoors - rather than surface contamination which is relatively easily avoided by venue operator disinfection and appropriate audience hygiene. This very strong indication is coming to the fore via the most recent medical and scientific opinions in the USA, Europe and the UK where transmission in bars and restaurants has been recorded.
Normal face to face conversation (in my own tests last week) produces a plume of ± 1 micron droplets from about 0.4m, downwards mainly, exhaling through the nose to around 0.75m ahead of you when talking at a normal level. Singing full voice and you are up to 1.5m and playing the high G on a flute about the same! The droplets tend to fall relatively quickly in still air to settle (if temporarily) on the ground or nearby surfaces over the next few minutes.
But - frighteningly - when you factor in a tail wind from a moderate breeze (in my own test case a fan running 10 km/s) you increase the aerosol plume to around 3m talking at normal volume and to around 5m singing or talking/laughing/shouting loudly. And, please don't cough or sneeze without covering your face, preferably with that mask on. This "tail wind" extra plume length, albeit with much less droplet density as the plume disperses has to be a consideration outdoors.
We have no published data yet, that I am aware of, on what is the typical virus particle concentration in small aerosol droplets or actual virus particle numbers likely, on average, to cause infection. Note: the average size of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is 0.1 microns, including spikes. Small aerosol droplets might be described as between 5 and 1 microns. A useful quick reference is in a fairly recent study published in the Lancet.
The effects of small aerosol droplets spread from fans and non-HEPA air conditioning were first noted in a Wuhan hospital back in February. The same general evidence exists for more recent occurrences in restaurants and small spaces where blower and AC circulation spread the virus particles rather than removing them.
Every indoor performance venue has markedly differing operating air movement dynamics. Ventilation varies from nothing at all to simple extractor fans and (especially in warmer countries) extractor plus intake fans. Full air conditioning does exist in some more modern facilities but is not, I am very sure, anywhere close to HEPA standards of filtration used in aircraft or hi-tech hospital operating theatres. What simple AC units do is to spread the outflow air throughout the whole air volume of the space via very basic particulate filtering, cooling and drying. Note: cool + dry = happy virus time.
I have sometimes walked into indoor venues during the day where theatrical smoke machines or hazers - call them what you will - have produced ± 1 micron propylene glycol droplets still visible from the night before. It can take several hours to clear a large volume space with simple low-powered extractor fans. So it is reasonable to expect the same lingering potential from similar size virus-laden droplets indoors during and after an indoor show. Published data shows that aerosol droplets having settled on surfaces are easily lofted again by air movement - even from passing bodies let alone fans and AC. That’s why I won’t enter an indoor shop premises without at least an N95 mask for protection, being 72 years old and of a mind to still practise my trade for a few years longer.
MASKS: My personal belief is that outdoor concerts are safe right now at the current level of national infections with minimum 1m lateral seat spacing for single seat positioning and EVERYONE wearing a mask - at least a 50p 3-layer surgical mask - not a flimsy single layer home-made cosmetic face covering. N95 masks of 4 layers including the important melted polypropylene filter layer are widely available again now from Amazon and many other vendors at around £2.50 per unit as of today. Wearing a mask allows for the vagaries of wind movement outdoors, even with the open natural ventilation of fresh air. And wearing a mask protects others around us - the new social etiquette as long practised in Japan since the 1918 flu epidemic.
SEATING: At seated outdoor (or indoor) venues, occasional individual seats, mostly demonstrable household groups of two in seat pairs or the very occasional group of four increase the capacity to up to 70% from only 35% with 1m-spaced single individual seats. Spacing of seat rows (front to back) is safer at 1.25m in my opinion where movable sets are used for such concerts but would reduce safe seating to 56%.
I typically measure up my UK cathedral show seating as being 1m from seat back to seat back where individual chairs, as opposed to fixed pews, are used.
SAFER AIR: In summer outdoor concerts, I usually use low profile electric fans on stage to cool me. They are positioned 2m in front of me pointing upwards and towards the back of the stage with fan speed set low to medium. That would inhibit all direct exhalation from me as a singing/wind instrument performer reaching the audience. By pointing up and backwards they would loft my exhaled droplets up into the lighting rig not into the faces of the backing musicians or upstage performers! The same thing can apply in most theatrical settings whether outdoors or indoors, in fact.
For backline instrumental musicians or orchestras (except wind and brass players) you should be as safe as the audience and can, of course, wear a mask advisedly. Vocalists, wind and brass players can avoid their breath reaching the audience by the use of floor fans pointed upwards as for principal vocalists. For acoustic orchestral performances, front screens to separate musicians are not an option due to blocking the direct sound for the audience. I have practised singing with a mask recently and, apart from looking a bit nerdy, it offers little obstruction to healthy lungs, let alone my own tired old airbags.
Proximity of audience to frontline performers should be a minimum 6m which is what I am demanding in my upcoming scheduled outdoor seated shows in Spain and Greece in a couple of months if they do, indeed, take place. That is a fairly usual distance for many theatres anyway. I shall be asking the audience in advance publicity to wear effective masks if it is not already compulsory under local laws. In an oncoming breeze (towards the stage performers) the audience-produced aerosol droplets will have had ample time and distance to disperse according to some published tests so far. As long as they are wearing masks to filter out the worst of it!
INDOOR PERFORMANCES (theatrical or musical)
This scenario poses much greater questions, many problems and more difficult solutions.
As a general rule, relatively few single tickets are sold for concerts or theatrical shows in my 52 years of professional experience. They are almost invariably purchased in pairs, threes, or fours. I used the seating plans of The Prince Of Wales Theatre in London and the Anvil, Basingstoke as a couple of examples to calculate spaced seating in groups of two with occasional fours and singles in a rough herringbone pattern. In both cases it turned out to be 70% of traditional capacity, based on their published seating charts. If I can do the sums, so can they. It is up to all of us - artists and venues alike - to work within the economic constraints of a 70% house by reducing production costs by a modest extent.
A single one-size-fits-all advisory to allow indoor theatres to open for business in the current ongoing pandemic is, in my experience-driven opinion, far from acceptable to audience and performer alike. Any resumption of performances in indoor spaces should include detailed analysis of the venue-specific risk from persistent airborne particles of down to 1 micron size and, very importantly, mandatory real face mask wearing. If audience members can’t commit to wearing a surgical or respirator-type face mask for two hours then they should reluctantly accept that this is, perhaps, not the time to go to the theatre or concert hall. Excuses as to being "unable to wear a mask" due to health conditions or mere inclination should not be accepted. Some will unfortunately simply try it on to buck the system as they do in our trains, aircraft and associated indoor spaces. Of course, a few would-be ticket buyers might have a genuine and verifiable reason not to wear a mask but is it fair to others in close proximity to create stress for them and potentially expose them to a greater risk of infection? There may be some data forthcoming a few weeks after the reopening of UK cinemas recently.
In my opinion, the reluctance the UK Government has shown regarding implementation of mandatory face masks for all scenarios other than public transport, is a major mistake. Having initially implied that face masks were a waste of time (really it was to discourage us from limiting much-needed supplies to front-line medical staff) they should have fully-embraced the practice back in April and made it mandatory in all indoor spaces as well as public transport for staff as well as customers. That would make life much easier in reopening performance venues now without the additional impediment of having to insist on mask-wearing for audiences in the face of resistance from some.
I suggest that environmental health assessments are carried out for theatres and concert halls and they can be granted (or not granted) an interim COVID license to operate with restricted seating and and all the other obvious sanitary and entry/exit/toilet protocols in place. That will take many weeks to carry out but I really think that we have, realistically, until next spring to to do this when, hopefully, infection rates are down to a safer level.
For these reasons, if the current pandemic continues to produce a (tested) few hundred daily infections in the UK, bearing in mind that the real infection rate is almost certainly so much higher, it is simply not safe at this point to resume even indoor socially-distanced and mask-worn shows yet in any but a tiny few carefully risk-assessed buildings. This may practically rule out virtually all the live theatre industry and most concert halls for the time being.
As to standing audiences whether in indoor clubs or outdoor festivals - that seems a recipe for disaster. Can any of us be trusted to socially-distance? Impossible to police and enforce once a performance has begun.
Generally speaking for all shows, other issues which are currently being considered in Europe (where shows are now cautiously resuming to seated outdoor audiences) involve lengthy time extensions from doors opening to showtime to allow for physical spacing of queues before and again after the performance. This means the length of queues may be greater and there must be the physical space outside such venues for safe marshalling and queue organisation. This will be huge stumbling block when applied to city centre theatres, especially London's many West End theatres often in close proximity to each other. It could be overcome to an extent by having strict arrival and entrance times according to seating pre-booked, rather like boarding calls on some budget airlines. Entry time could be notified via an app on your phone as it sometimes done in restaurants I have visited when your table becomes available.
I am being asked in upcoming shows to make the performance a single set with no intermission to avoid audiences mingling during the break, seeking refreshment and visiting the toilet all at the same time. This makes good sense in current times. Pain in the arse to be on stage for up to two hours without a pee-break but we have to do what we have to do.
ORCHESTRAS and CLASSICAL PERFORMANCES
Brass and wind players of course need to have their mouths unimpeded and are simply unable to play their instruments wearing a mask. However, I see little problem in orchestras being to perform safely soon if, as explained above, all players wear masks except for the slightly more separated chairs of wind and brass players who should use fans pointing up and backwards to keep their forceful breath from the players in front. The same thing applies to singers in operatic performances and recitals and to choirs in larger cathedral or church venues if they do not wear masks. But, as stated above, mask-wearing should not prevent vocalists from performing with a little practice and getting used to.
Indoor theatrical and musical theatre productions have a more complicated set of problems to solve given the mobility of actors, dancers and singers. Even a FFP2 or N95 mask could be worn along by most performers with suitable head mics and the EQ adjusted to boost the otherwise muffled higher frequencies.
Might look silly but - hey - these are perhaps the realities for some time to come.
The alternatives are daily tests for all performers working close together no stage as is being currently considered by film and TV producers to allow new programming to resume. That is time-consuming and currently very expensive. Reminds me of porn actors having an AIDS test every so often to prove they are safe to work with. Actually very unreliable due to the time between tests and the incubation period of the disease.
Since we have NO proof as yet that the presence of antibodies for COVID-19 give lasting or even temporary immunity, it is not safe to assume that because your leading lady or the violinist in the chair next to you has had COVID and survived, that they cannot infect you, or you them.
With real extractor (not recirculation) fans above the stage, it should be possible to remove any virus-infected aerosol droplets within seconds rather than minutes. evidence shows that on-stage hazer smoke (also ± 1 micron size) dissipates upwards very quickly in some theatres to the dismay of lighting directors!
I would honestly feel much safer on stage with the LSO or my band in such controlled circumstances than in a bar or restaurant with no face mask and only 1m spacing advised by our government.
The operating economics of an ongoing even 70% filled house in sub-thousand seater theatres is likely to be loss-producing for many theatrical productions as in the West End or provincial theatres based on their recent operating costs. In the music concert industry you might just scrape by if starting with a larger venue. Even a 2000 capacity typical theatre or concert hall with only 1400 sold tickets income may mean higher ticket prices and potentially huge investment in fixed seating reorganisation and air flow management. Public liability insurance will either be very expensive or exclude (as mine now does) COVID-related claims. But, in most cases would be profitable for Artist and venue alike.
However, with careful economic management and planning, many shows could soon resume in appropriate venues albeit with reduced production values and personnel but with greater costs for staffing, security and those physical venue modifications to allow COVID certification. Not a dime of profit but employment for tens of thousands and safety for audiences.
Pessimistically, I can’t see many indoor venues practically and safely reopening in the course of 2020 and very likely up to spring 2021 when we might hope to be past the worst of any winter-induced second wave infection. Unless, of course, the Government want to heavily subsidise the industry AND take a calculated risk on the risk of spreading COVID infection with inevitable resultant deaths, particularly in the older or medically vulnerable audience demographic, if no firm mitigating protocols like mandatory face mask-wearing are introduced.
Optimistically, I see no reason why safe outdoor concerts should not take place immediately subject to the conditions I have suggested. selected indoor theatrical and musical performances could be a mere few weeks away subject to UK infection rates continuing to reduce and the safety measures I have outlined brought into play. Easier at Shepherds Bush Empire than the Albert Hall, perhaps.
As a UK promoter and international musician, I see several sides of the complex picture. I have reduced my own Artist fees for the next few shows to allow latitude for the economic pressures on venues and promoters but to keep the usual pay rate to band and crew. Perhaps other highly-paid performers will consider the same reductions to avoid additional costs being passed on the already hard-pressed ticket buyer. I hope that the Government, venues and industry bodies will proceed along these suggested lines until such time that we might resume full capacity seated venues and without face masks. Don't hold your breath. Or, rather, do!
Many of us are champing at the bit to get on the stage immediately, without the benefit of the bigger picture. I share their frustration, lack of any income and professional desperation to get back to work.
But is any one person amongst us going to accept the ethical responsibility of causing a single death through a cavalier approach to reopening? Of course, the same thing applies down the local boozer or hairdresser....