During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve taken restaurant dining outside, replaced international travel with national park road trips and put work meetings that still probably should’ve been emails on Zoom.
But one experience that seems almost impossible to imagine in our new reality is the traditional live music show. While virtual concerts can provide great joy and entertainment, fans have lamented that they don’t capture the true feeling of an IRL show.
But when will we get the real deal again? HuffPost asked health experts to share their thoughts on the concert experience in time of coronavirus and their predictions for the future of live music.
Concerts are particularly risky in this pandemic.
While we’ve figured out relatively safe ways to bring back pre-pandemic activities like restaurant dining, concerts pose many more challenges in the coronavirus era.
“Concerts bring together some of the highest-risk behaviors for COVID-19 transmission,” said Brian Labus, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ School of Public Health. “We have large groups of people standing in close contact for an extended period of time while singing and cheering. Plus they would need to keep removing their masks to smoke or drink a beer. If we try to change these things, we would really change the entire concert experience.”
“The social aspect of traditional live music concerts makes it difficult to transition to a scenario where concertgoers are asked to enjoy the music in a socially distanced setting.”
– Dr. Kristin Dean, board-certified physician and medical director at Doctor on Demand
As large gatherings, traditional concerts are by nature potential superspreader events. The lack of personal space and constant flow of respiratory droplets as people sing or speak loudly to each other make most music shows a prime location for virus transmission.
“Enjoying live music with friends has begun to feel like a remnant of a better time as the impacts of a global pandemic continue to change the way we interact with the world,” said Dr. Kristin Dean, a board-certified physician and medical director at the telemedicine service Doctor on Demand. “The social aspect of traditional live music concerts makes it difficult to transition to a scenario where concertgoers are asked to enjoy the music in a socially distanced setting.”
She noted that attempts to hold live shows with (and without) social distancing, masks and additional precautions have sparked controversy and led to questions around how to move forward while remaining safe.
In August, German researchers conducted an experiment that aimed to answer those questions. To study the spread of the novel coronavirus in a concert setting, they outfitted about 1,500 people with tracking devices and fluorescent hand sanitizer. Participants then attended three simulations of a concert ― one as if there were no pandemic, one with moderate restrictions and one with more strict safety measures.
While the results have not yet been published, the study has already faced criticism for the risks involved in the experiment and questions about its accuracy given participants were not permitted to drink. Still, the findings could offer helpful insights into the possibilities for live music going forward.
We’ll need to have the virus under control first.
The experts who spoke to HuffPost were in agreement that the virus must be much more under control before we can bring back the concert experience. Most pointed to the need for a very low level of coronavirus transmission in communities, which is best reached through a widely deployed vaccine.
“For concerts to be as safe as possible, you’d need to have herd immunity established,” said Dr. Kim Kilby, a family and preventative medicine physician and senior leader at MVP Health Care. “To achieve this, experts have suggested that 75% of the population must either have received the vaccine or survived the infection.”
The U.S. is nowhere near the point of herd immunity, and to try to reach that level without a vaccine could cost millions of lives, overwhelm hospitals, further harm the economy and lead to a number of long-term health challenges for those who survive severe cases.
There are multiple vaccine candidates that look promising, but the CDC has said they won’t be widely available until mid-2021. Thus, many artists and venues have already moved their concerts to dates next summer, and they may have to push them again as the year unfolds.
“No large gatherings such as concerts should be held at least till the middle or end of next year,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University. “Concerts are not essential, and people should find alternate ways of entertainment … The pandemic won’t last forever, but the more we engage in events like concerts, there will be prolonged recovery from the pandemic.”
A vaccine will be a big help, but not the total solution.
“It is difficult to anticipate when or even if we will return to the traditional live concert setting that we were accustomed to prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dean. “Vaccinations, immunity and decreased spread of the virus may result in a safer environment to consider returning to concertgoing as we knew it, but it is too early to tell.”
Even if we reach the herd immunity threshold in the next year or so, traditional concerts may still pose a risk to many, as the virus will not simply “disappear.” As a result, venues will likely need to take precautions to protect concertgoers’ health, and some music fans may still be hesitant to attend a big show.
“It would be a better situation if we had vaccines, but realistically we may have to have a hybrid of recommendations,” said Dr. Jake Deutsch, a physician and founder of Cure Urgent Care. He emphasized the need for venue safety measures and rapid testing in addition to greater immunity.
“Testing being readily available, accurate, cost-effective, and providing rapid results can also facilitate the return of traditional concerts,” noted Dr. Sachin Nagrani, a physician and medical director for the telemedicine and house call provider Heal.
Outdoor concerts will resume before indoor shows.
“Outdoor events will return sooner given the lower risk of transmission of the virus when outdoors due to easier ability to distance, naturally high ventilation and sunlight sanitizing outdoor surfaces,” said Nagrani.
Indeed, concert organizers have already been testing out new outdoor music experiences amid the pandemic. In August, English artist Sam Fender performed for 2,500 fans at the Virgin Money Unity Arena ― “the U.K.’s first socially distanced music venue.”
The setup featured spaced-out private platforms, food and drink delivery and strict distancing rules. Six weeks after the venue opened, however, new COVID-19 restrictions to address rising case counts forced it to shut down.
Although outdoor concerts may be a good first step in the return of live music events, changing seasons and everyday weather conditions can be limiting. Keeping people spaced apart is also not necessarily easier outside.
A Hamptons fundraiser concert featuring the Chainsmokers came under fire in July after photos and videos from the event showed “egregious social distancing violations.”
Masks will be part of the equation for a while.
While the prospect of an effective COVID-19 vaccine looks promising, health experts have made it clear that it won’t completely shield everyone from the disease. Therefore, face masks will still be an important part of our lives, especially in high-risk situations like large public gatherings.
“People need to understand that even as the vaccine is rolled out, we will need to continue to wear masks and physically distance to prevent spread of coronavirus,” said Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious diseases physician and vice chair of the IDSA Global Health Committee.
Mask-wearing will be part of the concert experience of the future, at least for little while, as will other important restrictions, Dean noted.
“The same safety measures we recommend for reducing the spread of COVID-19 apply to live music shows, including social distancing, wearing a mask, frequent hand-washing, disinfecting communal surfaces prior to use and remaining home while you are sick or if you have had a known exposure to COVID-19 within the past 14 days,” she said.
Expect more checkpoints.
Just as we’ve seen restaurants do temperature checks before allowing patrons to dine, music venues will likely implement similar measures as concertgoers arrive at shows.
“While those checks will not be the only safety installments into the concert experience, we can reasonably expect that temperature checks, questionaries and other protections might be built into concerts in the future,” said Kilby.
Concert organizers will have to monitor the spread of the virus in the community and surrounding areas where attendees may travel from. As rapid testing becomes more widely available, venues could also require proof of a negative result.
“The reduced capacity will make it difficult, or even impossible, for the bands and promoters to break even.”
“Point-of-care testing to get done in the moment when they arrive would be a game-changer,” noted Deutsch.
If there are going to be more checkpoints, however, he believes venues need to rethink the ways they funnel attendees into the space to allow for social distancing. Touchless technological solutions and sanitizer stations at entry and exit points are obvious additions as well.
Organizers will need to reduce crowding.
As in-person concerts resume, organizers will likely have to limit the number of attendees to allow for social distancing. Still, Labus noted, that’s not enough to prevent crowding.
“It’s not just about reduced capacity, we have to reduce the density of the crowds as well,” he said. “Even if you only allow 10% of the venue’s capacity, those people will all crowd near the stage unless you have assigned seating that keeps them apart. That means having small crowds spread out in large venues, which would drastically change the concert experience.”
Venues with built-in seating may be at an advantage, but other spaces can of course add chairs or other mechanisms to ensure proper spacing.
“I do think that outdoor venues will return before indoor ones,” Kuppalli said. “I would also think smaller venues would be more likely, and places with assigned seating like the Hollywood Bowl would be preferential ― this way you can have people appropriately distance and wear masks.”
Artists and venues will continue to face challenges.
It’s no secret the concert industry is struggling in 2020, and a vaccine or gradual resumption of live shows will not cover the financial losses wrought by the pandemic.
“The reduced capacity will make it difficult, or even impossible, for the bands and promoters to break even,” said Labus. “Given the logistical challenges of mounting national tours, I would expect to see smaller acts in smaller venues before we see the return of large arena shows.”
In a recent survey of about 1,350 live industry professionals, more than 72% expressed “concern about their company’s ability to survive COVID-19.” A similar number said they do not believe the government “has given proper consideration to the plight of the sports and live entertainment industry as compared to other impacted industries such as airlines, hotels, restaurants/retail.”
It’s important for music fans to support their favorite artists and venues as they navigate this new reality, whether that means donating to relief funds, buying tickets to virtual events or spreading awareness.
“There are options to enjoy concerts right now, such as online or drive-in performances,” said Nagrani. “I highly encourage supporting your favorite artists and venues via the available options given our current constraints.”
Virtual concerts and viewings of pre-recorded shows have their own entertainment value, but as Kilby noted, it’s not quite the same as the powerful live experience.
“We can expect that the concert experience will be different going forward, and innovative artists are already trying new ways of engaging fans,” she said. “Throughout the pandemic, drive-in concerts have gained in popularity as an alternative to traditional concerts, but they are not accessible everywhere. They also don’t allow for the same experience or sound quality that a traditional in-person concert would have.”
While there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the concert experience in the age of COVID-19, one thing we know for sure is that it’s going to take some time for the industry to recover.
As Khubchandani emphasized, “We have to be patient.”