As promoters around the world struggle with the shutdown of concerts due to the pandemic, one German university is planning to study how the coronavirus spreads indoors by staging a show with singer-songwriter Tim Bendzko and 4,000 actual fans.
Amid the pandemic, professors at University Medical Center Halle (Saale) will use fog machines, contact-tracing devices and fluorescent hand disinfectant to simulate the spread of a virus like COVID-19 at a live show on August 22 at the Quarterback Immobilien Arena in Leipzig.
The professors are hoping their controlled study, called RESTART-19, will yield valuable answers about how to safely restart live music and sporting events in indoor settings beginning as early as this fall.
“The corona pandemic is paralyzing the event industry,” Armin Willingmann, Saxony-Anhalt’s Minister of Economics and Science, says in a statement. “As long as there is a risk of contagion, no major concerts and trade fairs or sports events are allowed to take place. That is why it is so important to find out which technical or organizational framework can effectively minimize the risk of infection.”
Even as scientists around the world race to discover a vaccine, the German study highlights the financial pressures facing governments from the loss of revenues from live entertainment. The Liepzig study is being financed with 990,000 euros, mostly from the states of Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. It is one of the few known research projects to target live indoor concerts, which in many U.S. states is part of phase five — the final phase — of reopening plans that were first drafted during the early days of the outbreak. The study comes as companies like facility operations giant ASM Global test their own anti-COVID measures through the newly developed VenueShield program, which includes social distancing between seats, plastic shield barriers for concession stands and mobile apps regulating traffic in and out of the bathroom.
Through centralized government action and extensive contact-tracing, Germany has been able to flatten its rate of coronavirus infections. As of Friday (July 24), Germany had more than 204,000 cases and more than 9,100 deaths; the country added about 200 deaths in the past month, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Nevertheless, amid an uptick in infections, the German government last month extended its ban on large events, including live concerts and festivals with spectators, until November.
The German government in June pledged €150 million ($174 million) in direct funding for the live music business for venues as part of its €1 billion “Restart Culture” funding package for the coronavirus-addled creative sector.
From UV Lights To Contact Tracers
The study will run 10 hours, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Scientists plan to include the journey to the arena by tram from a park-and-ride parking lot as part of the experiment.
At the check-in on the day of the event, all subjects will be given a respirator mask (FFP2 mask) and a bottle of fluorescent hand disinfectant. The participants will be asked to regularly disinfect their hands so that germ particles deposited on frequently touched surfaces can be recognized by UV light. “In this way, particularly dangerous surfaces can be identified,” the researchers say on the university’s website.
During the event, the scientists will equip the participants with a contact tracer — a transmitting device that will constantly measure the distance to the other participants and record them. Using a “special technique,” the tracers can be assigned to specific locations and times, so that “special risk moments and situations can be identified during a major event and the focal points for future hygiene concepts can be identified,” the researchers say.
The project will include three simulations that day. One will simulate concert conditions before the coronavirus pandemic with no additional social distancing; a second will involve all 4,000 participants with an optimized hygiene protocol and “significantly larger distances” between the fans; and a third will include 2,000 of the volunteers spaced 1.5 meters apart (about five feet).
To map the behavior of the participants as accurately as possible, Bendzko, a winner of the Bundesvision Song Contest, will perform during all three scenarios, free of charge to the participants.
Study organizers say they are taking precautions to ensure the safety of their volunteer test subjects — and to ensure that the event will not create community spread outside of the arena. All participants will be required to take a self-administered COVID-19 test 48 hours before the start of the study and masks must be worn throughout the experiments.
“In the run-up to the study, I was able to convince myself that the planned, sufficient protective measures pose no danger to the study participants and the general public,” says Petra Köpping, Minister of State for Social Affairs and Social Cohesion in the Free State of Saxony.
The researchers are also assuring study participants that they will treat their personal data responsibly. Personal data will be stored separately from movement data, and participant numbers will be randomly generated and unique identification numbers. The scientists vow to delete identifying contact details after six weeks, and to keep the rest of the data for 10 years after concluding the study and then to delete it.
Researchers are looking for 4,200 healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 50. As of Friday (July 24), 1,091 had signed up for the study.
Additional Reporting by Dave Brooks