Symphony orchestra musicians in the United States are increasingly consumed with a single, burning question: When and how can we come back to work?
Surprisingly, it appears that in some orchestras, musicians have already been returning and performing to at least some degree—for example, in small ensembles for streaming concerts at the hall—while others seem to be moving ahead with plans to present live concerts in the near future. That raises critical concerns about whether it is even possible to do so safely right now, and what steps musicians and managers can and should take as plans are made.
Last week, ICSOM and the AFM issued preliminary guidance regarding how best to approach management to discuss a safe return to work. See https://icsom.org/covid (login required). While that guidance is intended to be confidential, because much of it relates to bargaining strategy, I want to emphasize and elaborate upon this paragraph:
. . . any agreement reached with your employer must contain safety protocols that are consistent with both scientific consensus and orders from the relevant civil authorities. This, unfortunately, is the most difficult issue to resolve, as there is yet no real scientific consensus on what constitutes a safe return to work, particularly with respect to the unique aspects of an orchestral workplace. The inconsistent and ever-changing guidance we are seeing from governmental authorities does not help, either. We hope that more certainty about safest practices will develop over the next weeks and months. Until then, we must scrutinize carefully any proposed protocols and reject any that are unsupported by the best and most current science available. When in doubt, we urge you to err on the side of caution and safety.
The bolded language is key. To say that substantial questions remain regarding how to make an orchestral workplace safe for musicians to return during this pandemic would be a massive understatement. The purpose of this message is not to recommend any particular safety protocols; rather, I aim to point out some of these unanswered questions, and to flag certain issues that others have been discussing and how they might relate to the orchestral workplace.
First and foremost, there is still much we don’t know regarding the transmission of coronavirus and the risks inherent in congregating in the workplace:
- Peer-reviewed studies have shown that speech droplets can linger in the air for several minutes before falling or dissipating, meaning “there is a substantial probability that normal speaking causes airborne virus transmission in confined environments.”
- There is as yet no scientific consensus regarding the spread of droplets from woodwind and brass instruments, or from singers. Condensation from instruments also is an issue. There is conflicting information available online, none of which has been peer-reviewed.
- We still don’t know all the ways in which the novel coronavirus can be spread besides by respiratory transmission, nor the full extent of transmissibility.
Second, there are open questions regarding the possibility of effective health screening for musicians returning to work:
- The United States has no effective testing and contact tracing system, and none is on the horizon. That may render effective screening impossible. Consider the safety proposal that Major League Baseball recently made to its players’ union: “players would undergo multiple temperature screenings daily, including at home before coming to the stadium. MLB would test [players] for the coronavirus multiple times per week . . . family members would be tested too.” That kind of robust testing system simply does not yet exist in the U.S.; moreover, there are concerns about the accuracy of even the tests that are currently available. The efficacy of so-called antibody tests is even more uncertain.
- Until all musicians coming to work can be tested regularly and accurately, it is literally impossible to ensure that no one coming to work is infected with the novel coronavirus.
- Substitutes for effective testing—e.g., temperature screenings, health questionnaires and the like—are useless when it comes to asymptomatic carriers of the virus. Many who have COVID-19 don’t know they have it.
- There are as-yet unresolved legal issues and privacy concerns with respect to providing sensitive health information (of both employees and family members) to an employer. Yet such information is arguably critical to ensuring workplace safety.
Third, substantial work and expense may be needed regarding building facilities and operations:
- Significant retrofitting of facilities may be required. For example, AIHA, a nonprofit association for occupational health and safety science professionals, has issued return-to-work guidance with respect to different types of workplaces (e.g., office buildings, retail operations, manufacturing plants). Some steps that AIHA recommends include modifying all doors for hands-free opening and closing, rather than requiring people to turn knobs or pull levers; retrofitting restrooms with no-touch water spigots, urinals, and toilets, while removing all hot-air dryers; creating “negative air pressure” restrooms; and modifying air circulation systems to be powerful enough to effectively pull air through HEPA filters. Whether these types of steps can be taken in our concert halls or rehearsal spaces—many of which are older, or have some kind of landmark status—is uncertain.
- New procedures will need to be implemented to keep people safe, including instituting a strict, frequent, professional and thorough cleaning and disinfecting regimen that extends to all surfaces that could conceivably be touched; making hand sanitizer readily available everywhere in the workplace; or providing masks (and if so, what kind?). That all requires not just money, but a high level of institutional competence that not all orchestras possess.
- If a building has been closed for some time, it may need to be thoroughly cleaned and inspected to ensure that bacteria or mold hasn’t grown in water pipes or ventilation systems. Many of our older concert halls may be particularly susceptible.
Fourth, there are considerations unique to the orchestral workplace that raise questions for which we have little guidance:
- Can physical distancing be maintained at all times, not just on stage? Spreading out on stage is the easy part (though as noted, we don’t know enough about woodwinds and brass yet to do this safely). Are there protocols in place to ensure appropriate distancing from the moment a musician approaches the building to the moment they leave? For example, can this be done effectively in instrument and case storage areas? In cramped backstage areas? In elevators?
- We use green rooms, orchestra lounges, locker rooms, etc., all of which have entrances and exits. Can they all be designated one-way, such that it would be impossible to have one person coming through a door at the same time as someone else is leaving? Can distancing be maintained within those rooms? What about in stairwells?
- Many experts recommend training on safety protocols. Is that feasible, not just for musicians but for everyone in the building?
- Many orchestral musicians are over 60, meaning they are much more at risk of dying if they contract COVID-19. Given that risk, is there any safety plan that would permit them to return to work? What if a younger musician has someone over 60 in his or her household, or someone with an underlying health condition?
In an ideal world, answers to all these questions, and proper safety guidance, would come from OSHA or some other government agency. That has not happened—OSHA has been useless thus far. In addition, so much has become politicized that even detailed guidance from the CDC—the very agency charged with responding to a pandemic—was shelved by the current administration out of concerns it would damage the President politically.
The information that we do have is no substitute for governmental standards or scientific consensus. For example, musicians and scientists in Germany have studied how to make orchestra workplaces safer, and the result has been a few articles and blog posts widely shared on social media. That kind of information is a good starting point for discussion—it should not be taken as gospel. One should also keep in mind that Germany has a far more robust testing and health care system than the United States, and has been more successful in implementing societal restrictions to lessen the spread of COVID-19.
In considering all these questions, orchestra musicians working under a collective bargaining agreement must bargain with their management over safety protocols. Remember that it is always the employer’s responsibly to ensure a safe workplace. Hold them to that.
I fully understand every musician’s desire to return to performing, to help their orchestra stay relevant, and to show their value to their employer in a difficult economic environment. But I must urge caution. There is still so much we don’t know about this illness, and the stakes are simply too high for guesswork.
Note: the author is ICSOM General Counsel