WITHIN three weeks of members of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State in the US meeting in March for a rehearsal, 45 of them had been diagnosed with the coronavirus disease or had symptoms.
Around the same time, the Amsterdam Mixed Choir gave a performance of Bach’s St John Passion in the city’s Concertgebouw auditorium. Days later, singers began to feel ill until 102 of 130 choristers were struck down with Covid-19.
Over the following weeks, choir outbreaks were reported in Germany, England and South Korea. Those alarming developments raised a critical question — does public singing — not just at choirs but at football matches and sporting events — help transmit the coronavirus?
Some infectious disease experts said it was possible that an infected singer might disperse viral particles further than other infected individuals, which would cause increased numbers of infections.
However, other scientists questioned how far singers and musicians expel air and droplets. It was also possible that the virus was spread among chorus members because of their close proximity to each other before and after rehearsals and performances.
Either way, it was still alarming, especially when public singing takes place in a far more wide-reaching arena than choir settings, none more so than at sports events.
Last week, James Calder, who was part of the cross-sport working group with the British government and health officials, told the BBC that experiments are currently ongoing to try to determine whether singing or chanting at stadiums may lead to a larger risk of the virus spreading.
“Shouting is a big risk factor,” said Luke O’Neill from the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College, on OTB AM on Tuesday. “The virus comes out of your mouth when you shout, even more than when you speak.
“So, if the football crowd is shouting its head off, you’re going to [have] more virus being released. You mitigate against those by wearing a mask, that’ll trap the virus.”
Successive successful weekends of resumed club activity has left the GAA cautiously optimistic about some easing of the Government restrictions on match attendances. That has been really obvious with games played in large stadia. Small club venues are vastly different but O’Neill still outlined the risks.
“If you’re with someone in close contact for more than 15 minutes that’s a high-risk activity,” said O’Neill. “Secondly, the more and more people densely packed in, the more chance there is of that happening. If there isn’t good air circulation, if the air stagnates then the virus can sort of linger a bit.”
Limiting touch points in stadiums, such as toilets, reduces the risks, as does hand sanitisers, but the biggest risk is close proximity for a prolonged time.
In that context, one of the safest places in sport is on the pitch. In a piece by Shane McGrath in the Irish Mail on Sunday last week, one official told McGrath that there had been ‘zero’ evidence presented to the Government that contact sport posed a risk of transmission.
“That is very important,” wrote McGrath. “Because it means that even if crowds are kept low or even excluded entirely in the event of any future increase in the prevalence of Covid-19, matches could still theoretically be played.”
The issue with sport though, is everything else surrounding what’s happening on the pitch, particularly the issue of supporters. If the recent Government decision not to increase the crowd numbers to 500 was more a response to wider societal issues — especially in safeguarding the health system against an unmanageable rise in cases, and getting the schools reopened — that still doesn’t mean that sport is considered fully safe. In that regard, everything else which happens outside the game is where most of the potential risk lies.
The playing of sport is not a current cause of concern but the prospect of crowds, even in small numbers, is more concerning for health officials.
However, in that same piece, Kingston Mills, Professor of Experimental Immunology in Trinity College, told McGrath that as a potential area of risk, small crowds gathering to watch sport should not be a matter of concern.
“Outdoor activity, no matter what it is, is much less risky than indoors in terms of spreading the virus,” said Professor Mills.
It is highly likely that the numbers will be raised from 200 to 500 by August 10 but that would also be contingent on stricter social distancing measures, and possibly the mandatory wearing of face masks.
Future crowd increases though, are certainly not guaranteed, especially at larger sporting events. Even half-full venues seem fanciful later this year. Full capacity stadiums won’t be permitted until a vaccine for the virus is developed.
In June, Gerry Killeen, the AXA Research Chair in Applied Pathogen Ecology at UCC, who has over 20-years-experience working in disease control, said it could take four years before it is safe for Irish sporting fixtures to be played in front of packed stadiums again.
“The best-case scenario is we could have 50 per cent capacity at our sporting grounds,” said Killeen. “Everybody about a metre or so apart, everybody wearing masks, and this could go on indefinitely. To say this new normal would last for about four years is not an exaggeration.”
For the time being anyway, empty, or stadiums with a hugely reduced capacity, will certainly be the new normal for big sporting events.