Using a Small Ensemble for Your Online Worship May Not Be Safe

Using a Small Ensemble for Your Online Worship May Not Be Safe April 22, 2020

Those of us who are church musicians have probably seen our fair share of online worship services over the past weeks. The parade of examples in my Facebook feed is seemingly endless. While many of these churches started out with just one or two musicians in an empty church, it seems like an increasing number of churches are featuring small ensembles with singers and instrumentalists keeping that supposedly magical six-foot distance between them.

At one of my previous posts, I’ve noticed that they have been placing six or eight singers and a pianist in a small choir loft space.

Another church in my area featured several singers with a pianist and a hired brass quintet on Easter.

Another uses a quartet evenly spaced around a piano.

These are just a few examples. Look around a bit, and you’ll find many others trying the same kinds of techniques while giving the impression that they’re following the letter of the social distancing requirements. But we’ve been told over and over again: keeping six feet away from others is not enough to keep you safe, since many infections occur by touching the face with contaminated hands. And while maintaining the six foot radius might reduce your risk, it stands to reason that the reasoning behind the guideline assumes that the other people are not consistently singing their faces off.

According to Vincent Racaniello, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Columbia, speaking, singing, and normal breathing produces aerosols, which in an infected person, are laden with virus particles. While the largest of these droplets don’t travel very far, the smaller droplets are a different story.

“Those droplets 1-4 microns in diameter are called ‘droplet nuclei’; these remain suspended in the air for very long periods and may not only travel long distances, but can reach the lower respiratory tract. Inhalation of droplets and droplet nuclei places virus in the upper respiratory tract, where it may initiate infection.”

They can remain suspended in the air for very long periods.

In other words, others who occupy the same space, sometimes even hours later, can inhale infected droplets and become infected themselves. Think about that when you ask a group of singers to show up.

What if a singer sneezes in the choir loft and their aerosols reach the other singers around them?

What if the music director goes around to pick up hymnals and straighten chairs a bit later?

What if an infected person uses a restroom that is then used by a dozen other people over the next few hours?

What happens when the singers all file out of the chancel using the same path, even while keeping physical distance from each other?

Just yesterday, a respected pastor and liturgy expert shared a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that “aerosol and fomite transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is plausible, since the virus can remain viable and infectious in aerosols for hours.”

Think about it: aerosols produced from the breathing, talking, and singing of an infected person can remain suspended in the air and infectious for hours.

Racaniello recalled this incident or influenza transmission from the 1970s:

“The importance of aerosol transmission is illustrated by an outbreak of influenza aboard a commercial airplane in the late 1970s. The plane, carrying 54 persons, was delayed on the ground for three hours, during which time the ventilation system was not functional. Most of the travelers remained on board. Within 72 hours, nearly 75% of the passengers developed influenza. The source of the infection was a single person on the airplane with influenza.”

Of course, we already have anecdotal evidence linking a deadly outbreak of Covid-19 to a choir rehearsal in Washington state.

Church leaders, I get it. This is so very hard for us, and for several reasons. We’re anxious to get back to our regular music-making. We want to do the best possible job for our online congregation. But it’s not worth the risk. We must be willing to wait until it is safe to gather together again for worship.

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