Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson theorizes how shows could safely go on amid COVID-19
While the National Independent Venue Association lobbies for government aid to enable independent venues in the US to survive the pandemic, in the UK there has been some action by the government to preserve and protect the arts. They've created a five-stage plan for the return of shows, tested out socially-distanced indoor concerts, and began to identify recipients of a £1.57 billion recovery fund for art, culture, and heritage sites. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull has some ideas of his own about getting the arts, and specifically music venues, running again, and he's shared some of them in a detailed letter titled "how to get (some of us) back to work." He sent the letter to UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden on July 1, he says, and then to Minister for Digital and Culture Caroline Dinenage on August 12. He received replies from neither, beyond an acknowledgement of receipt, so he's shared the letter in full.
According to Anderson, he's done his own tests about the spread of aerosol droplets from speaking, singing, and playing instruments, and how they can vary with a change in volume or the addition of a fan. He also points out how haze from smoke machines can linger in the air at an indoor venue, suggesting that air carrying potentially viral droplets could too, without increased air circulation.
"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," Anderson writes. "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."
Anderson has some solutions in mind, too: outdoor shows, mask usage, and on-stage fans to direct air back from vocalists instead of towards the audience. "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," he writes. "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!"
As far as indoor shows go, however, Anderson warns that they pose "much greater questions, many problems and more difficult solutions." "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," he writes. "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?"
Anderson also touches on the economic concerns inherent in reduced capacity shows, as well as what he sees as best practices for orchestras and classical performances, before writing, "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."
Read his letter in full on jethrotull.com.
Anderson recently revealed that he's living with an "incurable lung disease," making his COVID concerns all the greater. "I should be OK for a few more years if COVID-19 doesn’t get me first," he says.