As the United States reopens, continued spread of the virus among some people—such as family members, roommates, or possibly co-workers—will be inevitable. What we can most hope to prevent are the “super-spreading” scenarios in which one person infects dozens of others. Choirs have repeatedly proved to be grounds for such events in the coronavirus pandemic.
The most infamous case was in Washington State, where one person attended a choir practice in early March while experiencing flu-like symptoms. Three weeks later, two fellow singers were dead. A subsequent study found that the “act of singing” contributed to 53 of the 61 choir members eventually testing positive. Around the same time, 102 of 130 members of an Amsterdam choir developed COVID-19 after a performance, and four people associated with the choir died. In Austria, 43 of 44 participants in a choir seminar tested positive. Similar super-spread choir outbreaks have been reported in South Korea and Germany. These events took place just before shutdowns went into effect. They will happen again, when shutdowns end.
With so much evidence now compiled, the simple answer to your question—don’t sing in groups—could seem obvious. In some places, leaders see it that way. Some parts of Germany, for example, have outlawed singing in churches. No law like that is forthcoming in the U.S., where churches are effectively exempt from much of the legal system. So decisions will largely be left up to local officials, individual congregations, and congregants.
Read: The pastors already planning to rebel against future shutdowns
The problem is, Americans don’t even have clear, uniform guidance for making such decisions, in part because the virus has become so politicized in the U.S. On May 22, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted a warning on its website that deemed singing hazardous and recommended that congregations “consider suspending or at least decreasing use of choir/musical ensembles and congregant singing, chanting or reciting.” The next day, the agency deleted it after President Donald Trump deemed religious institutions “essential” and called on governors to reopen them. (The Washington Post reported that the White House instructed the CDC to delete the choir warning; neither the White House nor the CDC responded when I asked for comment.)
The government’s abdication of its duty to provide basic information on managing coronavirus risk is especially dangerous because, in addition to the documented super-spreading events, there’s clear physiologic reason to be concerned about singing—or chanting, yelling, wailing, or even wassailing. Doing so in proximity to other people, especially when airflow in a space is limited, is a pandemic nightmare scenario.
When you sing, microscopic particles burst forth from your mouth in a fountain of mist. Large droplets fall quickly to the ground, but the rush of air also creates an aerosolized mixture of everything that’s lingering in the mucus membrane of your pharynx. This is exactly where the coronavirus attaches and replicates, which it can do before a person feels any symptoms.