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Researchers studied concert attendees to see if COVID-19 easily spread. Sean Gallup/Getty Images
  • Researchers in Germany found that adequate ventilation and hygiene precautions greatly lowered the risk of spreading COVID-19 at large gatherings.
  • Researchers from three universities asked pop singer Tim Bendzko to put on a live show at an arena in Leipzig, Germany.
  • The results showed that the risk of exposure to aerosol droplets increased substantially when the venue had a poor ventilation system or failed to implement precautions.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

Concerts have looked radically different during the pandemic. Bands that were used to spending their summers performing in front of massive crowds shifted to virtual concerts livestreamed into people’s homes.

And even though fans have tuned in, most music lovers will tell you: It’s just not the same.

There’s reason to be hopeful, though. After throwing an experimental pop concert, researchers from Germany have found that adequate ventilation and hygiene precautions could significantly reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 at mass gatherings.

Here’s what the findings may mean for the future of live music and other cultural events.

To learn more about the potential for COVID-19 to spread at seated indoor events, researchers from three universities asked pop singer Tim Bendzko to put on a live show in front of 1,212 volunteer attendees at Quarterback Immobilien Arena in Leipzig, Germany, in August.

All of the involved staff and participants tested negative for the disease within 48 hours ahead of the event and wore N95 masks and contact tracing devices throughout the concert.

The researchers ran three different test concert scenarios over the course of the day. The first performance had no physical distancing restrictions or other precautions that have since become common at gatherings during the pandemic.

The second performance included moderate precautions, like double the number of entrances to reduce crowding and checkerboard pattern seating that left every other seat empty and kept people distant.

The researchers added even more restrictions to the third concert, quadrupling the number of entrances typically used at the venue and seating people in pairs, with about 5 feet of distance between each couple.

Finally, the researchers tested a couple of different ventilation options to see how air movement could impact participants’ exposure to aerosol droplets.

The results showed that a seated indoor concert with strict hygiene precautions, like masks and physical distancing, and good ventilation had “minimal effects” on the overall number of infections that were likely to occur in the community.

The researchers also found that the risk of potential exposure to aerosol droplets, which can contain the virus that causes COVID-19, increased substantially when the venue had a poor ventilation system or failed to implement precautions.

“This was a very exciting study because it reenforces that what the public health officials have been saying is truly effective,” said Dr. Clinton Christopher Haley, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. “The research is very promising for future events.”

While optimistic about the results, experts say that the research should be taken with a grain of salt. The paper is a preprint and has yet to be peer-reviewed.

Furthermore, the strict hygiene guidelines and physical distancing requirements put in place at the experimental concert may be difficult to enforce in a real-life scenario.

“Volunteer participants in a study and people who really want to go see a concert are two very different types of people, and their willingness to stick with scientific precautions could be very different,” said Haley.

“This study also took place in Germany, which may have different societal norms about consistently wearing masks and social distancing than here in the U.S.”

Dr. Andrés Henao, internal medicine physician, infectious disease specialist, and director of the UCHealth Infectious Disease/Travel (TEAM) Clinic at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, says more research is needed before resuming concerts and other large-scale events.

“One study is not enough. The implications of holding an event with thousands of people can have a huge impact on public health,” Henao said. “You could have an outbreak at an event like this that infects thousands and thousands of people. It’s still premature to move forward.”

And between the cost of upgrading ventilation systems and the lost revenue due to attendance restrictions, venue owners might find that it’s just not financially feasible to put on a reasonably safe concert during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 infection rates of any local area play a big role in whether mass gatherings are permitted. In early August, there was a concert with 10,000 masked attendees in Taiwan, where there had been just 479 COVID-19 cases and seven deaths out of a population of more than 23 million people to date.

Cases in the United States are continuing to surge, though. On November 25, there were more than 88,000 people hospitalized for COVID-19 across the country — an all-time high, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

While there may still be alternatives to big concerts to enjoy live music, like at outdoor restaurants in New York City that invite bands to entertain guests or physically distanced drive-in concerts in many states. Virtual-only shows are still the lowest-risk way to see your favorite performers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The one upside? You’ll have the best seats in the house.