Why Singing Hymns In-Person Won’t Happen Soon
Karen P. Thomas, UUC Director of Music
It’s exciting to anticipate that some of us may soon begin to listen to the livestream service on Sunday mornings from Nathan Johnson Hall, and eventually in the chapel itself. As you’ve been reading already, we will be doing this in a very safe and careful manner, with mask-wearing and physical distancing.
Everyone is longing to return to communal singing as well, but we need to wait longer before doing this. Unfortunately, as became apparent early in the pandemic, singing together is one of the most efficient ways to spread the COVID-19 virus. There were a number of tragic events in the first few months of the pandemic in which choirs continued to rehearse (even with safety precautions) and those choral rehearsals became super-spreader events in which multiple members contracted COVID-19, and some were hospitalized or died. This recent New York Times article about the Skagit Valley Chorale and their super-spreader event of March 2020 is sensitively written and well-researched. It explains why their current return to singing is still virtual, not in-person. A particularly salient point from the article: “The particles that leave the mouth of a super-emitter singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ John Volckens says, are roughly equivalent to 10 people standing shoulder to shoulder talking.”
The vast majority of choirs around the world are still not gathering to sing in-person, and the vast majority of churches are still not allowing congregational singing, even with masks on and physical distancing. Until we have reached herd immunity with a large percentage of the population vaccinated, and infection rates dropping consistently, it is still not safe to sing together in-person. We need to proceed with extreme caution in order to protect everyone who enters the building, and for now that means refraining from singing together.
There certainly are choirs doing some careful in-person group singing, with masks and physical distancing, but those are mainly university choirs which have populations that are not at high risk, and the singing is generally being done in large outdoor spaces, such as parking lots.
Here is another article, this one by a University of Washington School of Medicine professor emeritus, with some excellent information about how aerosol transmission works, along with references to other studies and articles.
We will certainly be able to sing together again eventually, both congregationally and as choirs, but we need to continue to exercise caution for now, and be patient for a little while longer. Meanwhile, keep singing along with the virtual services from the safety of your homes!