By Greg Cahill | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine

In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced most of the world into extended lockdowns. Musicians, like hundreds of millions of others, went into quarantine. The development of vaccines and adherence to safety measures has eased restrictions, but musicians still face an uncertain future as the world struggles to return to “normal” behavioral patterns. “My season was almost entirely wiped out until September,” says concert violinist Philippe Quint, who during the winter played a pair of restricted indoor concerts in Florida and Texas, in which the audience members were masked and socially distanced. “I do hope summer stages bring us some outdoor possibilities—fingers crossed.”

In the pre-pandemic world, the summer season was an especially busy and lucrative time for string players of all stripes, thanks to the large number of outdoor classical- and folk-music festivals. But at press time, those events are in jeopardy as organizers wrestle to schedule events that will be dependent upon the uncertain availability of vaccines and potential spikes in the infection rates. 

“Music@Menlo is exploring a number of possibilities for the 2021 summer festival,” says Claire Graham, communications director for the popular Northern California chamber-music fest co-directed by cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han. “Closely following state and county guidelines, our paramount concern will be the health and safety of our artists, patrons, and staff. We have surveyed our audience and prospective audiences and are mindful of potential attendees’ safety concerns for the coming summer. We will be presenting online concerts again, with the hope that attendees may be able to convert their online tickets to reduced-capacity, socially distanced in-person events. 

“The practicalities of this depend entirely on the evolution of the COVID-19 situation over the coming months, and we are monitoring local and national guidelines closely to make informed planning decisions accordingly.” 

The Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado is also taking a cautious approach to the resumption of outdoor concerts. “We are actively planning for an in-person season that is safe and distanced, running July 1 to August 22,” says AMFS publications and PR coordinator Kristin Cleveland. “To achieve our goal, we have revised the scope and scale of our programming and educational offerings in order to present music instruction and daily performances that are safe and distanced, with the majority of performances taking place in the AMFS’s open-air Benedict Music Tent, as well as other outdoor Aspen venues.

“For all in-person events, we have established rigorous safety protocols at our venues—for students, faculty, staff, guest artists, and patrons. At all stages of the planning process, the AMFS has been closely monitoring public health conditions and following local public health guidelines and will continue to do so, offering in-person events if and how it is safe to do so at the time.”

For now, outdoor concerts are the best hope of audiences seeking solace in music. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, has even offered hope that indoor concerts and theater performances could return later this year. Speaking at a recent virtual conference for the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, Fauci said that in order for indoor events to resume, the country should reach herd immunity, when 70 to 85 percent of the population has been vaccinated. He noted that the “overwhelming majority” of superspreader events have occurred at indoor gatherings.

“If everything goes right, this will occur sometime in the fall of 2021, so by the time we get to the early to mid-fall, you can have people feeling safe performing onstage as well as people in the audience,” Fauci said, adding that it’s more responsible for venues to hold outdoor concerts. 

“If you’re out there, with the natural breezes that blow respiratory particles away, it is so much safer,” he said.


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Given the recent pandemic-induced live-performance drought, some music lovers are taking matters into their own hands and staging their own outdoor concerts. If you are considering taking this step, what kinds of safety protocols should you follow? Here are 11 suggestions you’ll want to keep in mind.

Here’s a guide with links to each section in this article:

  1. Think Local
  2. Forget the Cash
  3. Masks Required
  4. Basic Etiquette Rules
  5. Safety in Numbers
  6. Manage the Traffic Flow
  7. Keep Your Distance
  8. Do Not Share Objects
  9. Restroom Rules
  10. Set Up a Safe Stage
  11. Add a Touch of Grace

1. Think Local

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control on its website offers an extensive list of suggestions for “enhancing protection” while staging a large outdoor event. Most importantly, “event planners and officials can determine, in collaboration with state and local health officials, whether and how to implement these considerations, making adjustments to meet the unique needs and circumstances of the local community.” These local and regional health rules can vary—for example, some counties require businesses to take the temperature of patrons before providing admission. Ask your local authorities.

2. Forget the Cash

Cash is an anachronism in the COVID-19 era, due to the possibility that paper bills can spread the virus. Set up an app-based PayPal or Venmo account for online payments. If you choose to allow ticket sales at the gate, consider app-based Apple Pay or a Square point-of-service system.

3. Masks Required

Properly fitted facial masks can reduce infection substantially.Masks are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult (such as when moving within a crowd or audience). Display clear signage noting that masks are required, but there are exceptions: Babies and children younger than two years old; anyone who has trouble breathing; anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance. If a patron refuses to wear a mask, ask politely that they comply. If they still refuse, decline admission. Be firm, but don’t invite confrontation unless you are prepared to handle it.

4. Basic Etiquette Rules

Encourage staff to cover the mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing. Used tissues should be thrown in the trash and hands washed immediately with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Encourage attendees to wash hands often (set up sanitation stations) and cover coughs and sneezes. 

Attendees often exchange handshakes, fist bumps, and high-fives at meetings and sporting events. Display signs (physical and/or electronic) that discourage these actions during the event. Consider developing signs and messages in alternative formats (large print, braille, American Sign Language, announcements from the stage) for people with impaired vision or hearing.

5. Safety in Numbers

The more people an individual interacts with at a gathering and the longer that interaction lasts, the CDC notes, the higher the potential risk of becoming infected with or spreading COVID-19. So a smaller event is safer than a larger event. The size of an event or gathering should be determined based on state, local, territorial, or tribal safety laws and regulations.

6. Manage the Traffic Flow

Clearly designate aisles that permit patrons to move to their seats without walking through congested areas. There should be designated entrances and exits.

7. Keep Your Distance

Social distancing, including markings or physical barriers that define areas at least six feet apart for individuals or small pods of three or four people, is essential. 

8. Do Not Share Objects

In the interest of containing the virus, the less interaction, the better—thus the popularity of the elbow bump in place of the handshake. Forego souvenir stands or food concessions. You might be tempted to offer pre-packaged meal items or permit patrons to bring their own food and beverages, but even safe disposal of used utensils and drinking cups can put the festival staff at risk of infection.

9. Restroom Rules

Keep restrooms disinfected and well stocked with supplies. Limit the number of patrons allowed in the restroom (you may need to assign staff to monitor). Do not allow lines or crowds to form near the bathroom. The longer and larger the event, the more likely you will have to face restroom challenges.

10. Set Up a Safe Stage

Keep the musicians safe by building an elevated stage that is set back 20 feet from the audience. If you choose to cover the stage to shield the sun or curtail the wind, keep the tenting open on at least two sides to facilitate ventilation. Musicians should be distanced and masked unless the mask inhibits their performance. 

11. Add a Touch of Grace

Be kind. Be patient. Make everyone comfortable. Remember, the lengthy quarantine has isolated us from friends, family, and colleagues. It’s been a year since most musicians have performed for a live audience and equally as long since most of us have attended a concert. Expect a bit of a learning curve on how to do this.