Earlier today, I read a sad and sobering article about a community chorus in Washington State that held a rehearsal on March 10. Approximately 60 people met for rehearsal that day, and later that week 2/3 of the group came down with symptoms of Covid-19. Several cases were confirmed by testing; 2 people died. It appears that rehearsal was a “super-spreader event,” during which one person carrying the virus unknowingly spread it to many others. From all accounts, no one was actively coughing or sneezing at the event. It is possible the virus was spread through aerosol droplets, breathed out strongly and inhaled deeply by singers used to working their lungs.
In early March, the virus had begun to spread in Washington State, but there were no known cases in that particular county. The rehearsal took place a day before the state’s governor banned groups of 250 or more in certain counties, and two days before he closed schools, bars and restaurants. Was it negligent on the part of the leaders of the chorus to hold rehearsal that day? What would an ordinary person decide?
This story really hit home for me because that same week, on the opposite side of the country, I attended the last rehearsals of the three community choruses I accompany before they were suspended for the remainder of the spring. I had begun to wonder about the safety of rehearsals because of how catchy the virus is. But the information coming through the news was mixed. On one hand, President Trump was downplaying the seriousness of the virus; on the other hand the World Health Organization was declaring this a pandemic. No one was in agreement on how to handle the situation, and no health organization warned that the virus could be be suspended in the air as aerosol droplets. That was just an unconfirmed rumor.
As an accompanist who observes how community choruses are run (through a board, not one individual’s decision), I can see how difficult it is to make these decisions. If the the rehearsals and concerts are cancelled prematurely, it can upset many members of the chorus. Several of them paid to participate in the group, and most depend on it for a good deal of their social life. Many consider the music-making an important part of mental health. Canceling rehearsals or concerts is not a decision to be taken lightly. On the other hand, waiting too long could put members at risk for catching such a virus. How does a leader or board of directors know what to do?
Here in Rhode Island, the professional groups took their cues from the governor. Concerts were not canceled until after the governor banned groups of 250 or more. If the professional groups take their cues from the governor, how much more are small community groups dependent on clear advisement from the government? All the community choruses I am involved in are smaller than 250 people. Questions abounded: Do we meet? Do we not meet? Is it safe to be in a smaller group if we maintain social distance? One group acted proactively and canceled the season immediately. Another group waited until the governor limited groups to 50 or less before canceling the season. Another group put rehearsals on hiatus but is holding out hope that we can resume rehearsals in a few weeks and put together some semblance of a concert in late spring.
It’s not the responsibility of the group’s director or board to know the answers. In fact, I don’t think it is even possible. Unless there is a person on the board who specializes in public health, I don’t think it is fair to expect a community chorus to know what the best call to make is, especially when the information is unclear or lacking. It’s not easy to close up shop when so much is at stake. Many groups are unable to pay their professional musicians who were contracted, who suddenly find themselves unemployed when concerts are canceled and months of work vanishes. I am lucky that two of my choruses were financially solvent enough to pay me despite cancelling the season. But one group is dependent on concert ticket sales. I don’t know yet if I will get paid for work I already did. That is a reality for many non-profit arts organizations.
Ultimately, the decisions were taken out of the hands of the choruses, and other large community groups, including churches. As it should be. The experts in public health and the governmental leaders – the people who we have chosen and indirectly hired to make these decisions – are responsible for telling us the best course of action. As sad as the story is in Washington State, I do not hold the director or the board or the chorus members themselves responsible. Perhaps they held out too much hope. Perhaps they were too optimistic. Perhaps they were too trusting by waiting on the governor to take further action. But I don’t think they were negligent.