How safe are outdoor concerts? We asked USC’s epidemiology chief for an opinion | Arts



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During our recent chat, Dr. Anthony Alberg said “disturbing” a lot.

Each time he uttered the word, he was reacting to the idea that outdoor concerts are happening in South Carolina at venues that don’t enforce strict social distancing, allowing crowds to mix and mingle.

The chair of the department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health emphasized that if such events are happening, then they could be a big contributor to the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to drag on.

And drag on it does. At this point, Alberg estimates that “in the absence of a vaccine, this will go through next summer and start to wane in the fall of 2021.”

Free Times talked with Alberg about whether some concerts and other events with a live audience might be safer than others right now, seeking to give readers a better idea if they should stay or go depending on what situation they walk into. Regardless of the nature of the event, the epidemiologist stressed that those who are older or who possess a pre-existing condition that puts them at elevated risk — asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol — should be cautious, and everyone should wear a face covering and practice good hand hygiene.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Free Times: How should you gauge the safety of the crowd at a particular event?

Dr. Anthony Alberg: How big the venue is in relation to the size of the crowd would be an important consideration. Can people sit far enough apart? You’d want to sit near the people you came with, the people in your pod, but how far away can you be from other people? Can you be six feet or further away from other people? If so, then that would enhance the safety.

Also be thinking maybe even a little further distance, even with the face coverings and all that. At a concert, people are going to be, depending on the kind of concert, likely to be yelling and shouting and cheering and that sort of thing. The more vocal we get the more likely we are to spread the coronavirus further distances.

And for me, the absolute size of the crowd would come also into play. What about getting in and out of the concert? The tickets? What about if there are stairways and tight spaces? What about the concessions and the social distancing at concessions and what safety measures are in place there? And then restroom facilities? If that’s an indoor restroom, is it being cleaned regularly?

That’s where some of my greatest concern is, not so much if there’s capacity to handle the social distancing for where you sit during the event, it’s those areas where there can be congestion getting in and out — concessions, restrooms, etc. — that could really enhance the likelihood of infection in those tighter spaces.

If you were faced with the choice between an outdoor concert or performance where the venue isn’t enforcing social distancing and people are milling about and congregating, or a seated indoor event where groups are well-spaced-out, which would you say is safer?

I was kind of going under the assumption that any event would have that kind of crowd control, where there was just built-in social distancing.

Without knowing the details, it’s hard to give an absolute answer. But from my opinion, even if though it’s indoor air, that’s enhancing the likelihood of infection, if it’s carefully social-distanced versus an outdoor event where it’s just completely ignored and people are just bumping up against each other, I would tend towards the carefully socially distanced event versus one where there was no attention to that, even if it was outdoors.

What are the benefits of an outdoor space versus an indoor space?

In an outdoor area, if the coronavirus was emitted into the area, there’s breezes that come by and circulating air that would make it less likely for it to infect an individual in that area compared to the same type of exposure that’s in indoor air, where they stay in circulation longer and enhance the likelihood of infecting an individual.

But if there’s no attention to social distancing in an outdoor setting you kind of lose the advantage and are enhancing the likelihood of infection through close proximity, compared to an indoor setting where people are adequately spaced apart and you’re getting safety by doing that.

Is alcohol consumption a problem? How do you feel about people going to a concert or event and having a beer or two?

I think a beer or two would not be too concerning. Where I would worry about alcohol would be increased going to the concession stand is increasing risk because the social distancing is likely to break down more in the concession stand.

But then No. 2, after the concession stand, would be excess consumption of alcohol. We all know that with more alcohol drinking, behaviors change, behaviors become more risky in general.

If you attend an outdoor concert where people are congregating up toward the stage, how can you handle that? Would standing far behind them help?

If you’re keeping your social distance, that’s going to help, for sure. The issues about the crowding at the front would be a few fold. There shouldn’t be anybody close to the performers, really. If they’re singing, it’s been well-shown that singing — say the performer’s infected, and is singing, then the likelihood of spreading coronavirus is much greater when singing than just when talking. So really, there should be more distance between the performers and the crowd.

The gist of your question is getting at people who are more risk-takers and milling about kind of shoulder to shoulder and then mingling in the larger crowd. I would be very careful. The important thing would be to maintain the social distance.

What about drive-in concerts, as well as drive-in movies. Would those be safer outside of the concession stands and restrooms?

Those would be the main concerns. But that to me sounds like a relatively safe alternative. I don’t know if it detracts from the fun side of things. [Laughs]

But that does sound like that would be safe. The only real concerns would be where the transactions take place and the common spaces.

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