I am not a doctor, epidemiologist, or virologist. I am, however, someone with a good understanding of risk assessment and generally pragmatic approach to things so I thought I'd put down in black and white my thoughts on how to potentially think about re-opening some of the things we love; specifically theatre (here), and aviation.
Here I discuss my thoughts on the gradual return to a 'new normal' in Theatre following the changes brought about by the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic. It's designed to provoke discussion, and I look forward to seeing how far off the mark this is.
Social Distancing, how close is too close?
Firstly, throughout all this, keep in mind that the actual distance for "social distancing" recommended by the EU and by the WHO is 1m, not 2m.
"According to the currently available evidence, transmission through smaller droplet nuclei (airborne transmission) that propagate through air at distances longer than 1 meter is limited to aerosol generating procedures during clinical care of COVID-19 patients." – World Health Organisation
The 2m separation distance in the UK has been created on the basis that people are known not to be good at estimating distance; by telling people to remain 2m apart, chances are they will actually remain 1m apart.
The days of the celebrated "full house" are likely behind us for a while. Theatre auditoriums are not designed in any way for social distancing (even at 1m), and it'll take a while before people are comfortable in that environment again too.
But what can we do? Surely there's a few measures that can be taken in mitigation to try and get live theatre back on its feet?
Reduced Audience Numbers
One way to reduce the transmission risk, and facilitate distancing, is simply to limit capacity. Spain is planning to re-open theatres soon, but with one third of their capacity. Of course, whether a 1500 seat auditorium limited to a capacity of 500 would be commercially viable for any touring show is questionable at best, but it could perhaps attract some smaller-scale productions, even am-dram, back to the stage.
One option which would further mitigate any infection risk is to leave every second row empty, this would facilitate access to seats without squeezing past others in the row, as well as ensuring that there will (generally) not be anyone within 1m of anyone else on at least one axis.
We could learn from the travel industry here, and research that's been undertaken to show how viruses can spread between rows in an airliner cabin or train.
Enter House Right
Unlike bars and clubs, theatres are relatively unique in that people tend to remain in one place for the entire performance (except interval drinks etc) therefore any transmission risk is going to be very localised, and minimised further if every second row is left empty.
In most large theatres every exit is opened at the end of the show, but everyone enters via the same (packed!) foyer and crush spaces. Maybe changes can be introduced here, use the fire exits as entrances and have people enter through the door nearest their seat. This means that in a 1000 seat auditorium with eight exits, instead of having 1000 people mingling through one common area, you have around 125 people at each door.
Entering the theatre should be more like boarding an aeroplane, with people (as much as is reasonably possible) entering in the order of their seating location to minimise contact.
Obviously, in keeping with most public spaces, hand santitiser should be provided and everyone encouraged to use this. Perhaps things like IR thermometers (as are being introduced at airports, and even some schools, across the world) would be sensible with those having a temperature over 38ºC being refused admission. This could be done relatively unobtrusively using new technologies like "fever-sensing" cameras.
There will now be a short (different) interval
Interval presents a problem, 1000s of people going to bars, concessions, etc is an issue and likely will be for some time. There's already options to order interval drinks from your seat via an app, this is even easier if every second row remains empty in the short term.
The (UV) Light Fantastic
Huge strides have been made in Far-UVC disinfectant lighting, to the extent that one that is likely to be safe for human exposure is under development, through time we could potentially have this lighting during the performance but, in the interim, high power UVC sterilising lamps could be used when the auditorium is unoccupied (of course with precautions to ensure they can never be energised when the house is open), in addition to thorough cleaning between performances of course.
Most venues use haze to accentuate lighting, and it's easy to expect that this 'transports' the virus about the room, however it appears that the opposite might be the case.
There is a study from the 1950s (would be good to repeat it now perhaps) that "Triethylene glycol vapor has been found to exert a rapid lethal action against a wide variety of infectious airborne agents inclduing influenza, meningopneumonitis, and psittacosis"
Perhaps fluid manufacturers like Look Solutions, Le Maitre, etc could look (no pun intended) to developing a haze fluid with anti-microbial and sanitising properties that's safe for general exposure and we could fill auditoriums with haze that not only accentuates lighting effects, but helps fight the virus itself?
Such an invention would be a (literal!) life-saver for the industry.
Outdoor Theatre and Events
A recent study showed of 318 outbreaks of Covid-19, only one could be traced to an outdoor environment. There is considerable evidence now to suggest that the warmer weather, humidity, open air, and sunlight create an inhospitable environment for the virus whilst the transmission risk is much higher indoors.
This isn't good for our much-loved auditoriums, but theatre can take many forms, and there is likely a less compelling reason why (soon) outdoor theatre, amphitheatres, and fantastic unique venues such as the Minack shouldn't be able to open their door and their stages once again.
What is theatre?
Theatre, much as I love the grand auditoriums and fantastic empty spaces that are brought to life by art, light, and music is not just about the building or the space, but the very art of performance. It can take many forms, from street theatre, to site-specific pieces.
Over the last few weeks and months there has been a plethroa of online streams of theatre performances, old archival recordings released to the public for the first time by the National Theatre, together with professionally produced videos of prominent West End Musicals.
However, it's important to realise that without their continued support, none of the content people have enjoyed over these difficult months will exist in the future. It may be some time before there's 3,000 people filling the Edinburgh Playhouse (the UK's largest theatre) to watch a large scale touring musical, but it's still important to support our local theatres, amateur or professional, even if it's all scaled back for a while.
When, inevitably, in the coming months or years Arts funding is under threat (again), or the first place that people seek to economise is in entertainment I hope people remember what they turned to in this dark time; entertainment.
Whether that be watching recorded theatre performances, music, TV shows, or the latest blockbluster on Netflix, these are all "the arts", and without them the world would be much darker.
The bottom line is this is all an exercise in risk assessment. The virus isn’t going to magically disappear overnight, no matter how long restrictions are in place, we will have to live with this risk (mitigated) for at least a year I expect, possibly much much longer depending on the success of vaccines and new treatments.
We're all missing theatre, whether that's being part of the production, or watching a story unfold before us in a way that only live theatre can achieve, but we must be able to ensure this is done as safely as possible, minimising risk. It's equally important to realise, however, that the risk will never be zero.
There will be a balance to strike between maintaining a quality of life, maintaining our culture that makes us who we are, and protecting ourselves from the virus, for however long that may be.
I haven't touched on the considerations and changes that would be needed backstage. Most old theatres have quite cramped conditions in many backstage areas, and to be honest there's probably a whole other article in there somewhere, as it'd be almost impossible to "maintain social distancing" in that environment but, again, there's sensible measures that can be introduced to minimise the risk.