Much to the annoyance of sports fans and culture hounds, events with large audiences have been put on ice over the past few months thanks to the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic. But as social distancing and lockdown measures start to ease up around the world, what’s the risk of such events? A massive new experiment plans to employ the help of a German pop star and 4,000 fans to find out.
Scientists at the University Hospital Halle (Saale) in Germany, funded by the federal states of Saxony-Anhalt and Saxony, are hoping to get insights into how the coronavirus might spread at mass gatherings by closely observing three different scenarios at a concert by German singer-songwriter Tim Bendzko at Leipzig Arena on August 22.
The volunteers, healthy people aged 18 to 50, will be tested for Covid-19 48 hours before the concert and they will only be allowed to enter if they test negative. The researchers will give the concert-goers an FFP2 filter face mask and a fluorescent hand sanitizer that allows the scientists to track the surfaces most often touched by audience members.
Most crucially, all participants will also be given an electronic tag that regularly beams back data about their distance, duration, and frequency of contact with other audience members. Once all of the data on peoples’ movements and interactions are collected, it will be run through a computer model that looks at how the coronavirus could be spread from person to person.
The experiment will play out under three different scenarios: one scenario will be just like pre-Covid-19 (albeit with necessary precautions like face masks) with 4,000 participants; another simulation also with 4,000 participants will see the entrance and movement of the audience controlled; and the third simulation with just 2,000 participants will look at 1.5-meters (5 feet) social distancing between seat rows.
“The corona pandemic paralyzes the event industry. As long as there is a risk of contagion, no major concerts and trade fairs or sports events are allowed. That is why it is so important to find out which technical or organizational framework can effectively minimize the risk of infection,” Professor Armin Willingmann, Saxony-Anhalt's Minister of Economics, said in a statement.
Scientists still have very little hard evidence about how Covid-19 spreads at mass gatherings, although a number of case studies have suggested that large public meetings could provide fertile ground for transmission.
“If we want to allow major events again in the future, we need scientific knowledge about how we can minimize the risk of infection and create more security for all participants," said Petra Köpping, Saxony's Minister of State for Social Affairs and Social Cohesion. "I am very happy that we can support such an important project across borders and thus enable the way back to more normality. Because, of course, major events are to take place again in the future, but as the government, we also have to assume our responsibility for protecting the population.”