In an open letter to Canada’s 3.5 million choral singers and directors, Choral Canada is encouraging members to lobby for dialogue that goes beyond negative headlines and assumptions.
“We are seeking constructive avenues of communication among the Canadian choral community, health officials and policy-makers so that we can provide unified guidelines for the choral community,” the letter reads.
Well-known St. John’s choral director Kellie Walsh is president of the national advocacy group.
Members of the local music community have been requesting a dialogue with public health officials to promote decisions about the implications of choral singing and other musical performance.
If and when schools open for in-class instruction this fall, band and choral programs will not go ahead as usual.
“We’re taking a precautionary approach when it comes to this, because we do know that in places where they have physically distanced, they still have transmission with singing." — Dr. Janice Fitzgerald
On top of this being a disappointment to educators and students, the strict policies against group singing have caused frustration among church parishioners who are “discouraged” by public health from singing along to music performed by one or two soloists, and are instead urged to hum along.
In a letter to The Telegram published earlier this week, St. John’s resident Deborah Collins said she’s confused by what she sees as conflicting standards.
“Singing is a key component, and one of the greatest joys of church worship, as is meeting together in a church sanctuary,” she wrote. “While I’m sure no one in this province’s faith community would ever wish to strike a discordant note with health protocols, it seems reasonable for churchgoers to expect the same level of trust that’s been given to owners of bars, sports and recreation groups, tourists and demonstrators.”
On Wednesday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Janice Fitzgerald admitted there is little research on whether singing is high risk, but said experience in other regions suggests there could be a problem.
“We know that people, when they’re singing, they’re able to spread aerosols from their breathing much further than if they’re not singing,” she said.
“This is all really new information, though, so we are learning as time goes on. There’s not a lot of research being done on it. We’re taking a precautionary approach when it comes to this, because we do know that in places where they have physically distanced, they still have transmission with singing.”
It’s not clear whether this is the case, however.
An often-cited example is the spread of COVID-19 among members of a choir in Washington State.
On their final rehearsal on March 10, more than 60 of the choristers gathered for a two-and-a-half hour rehearsal where they mostly sat in chairs spaced only a few inches apart. Well over half of the members contracted COVID-19, and two died.
In its report on the matter, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said that while singing was likely a factor, physical distancing was not observed and food was also exchanged during breaks.
“Attendees practised together for 40 minutes, then split into two smaller groups for an additional 50-minute practice, with one of the groups moving to a smaller room. At that time, members in the larger room moved to seats next to one another, and members in the smaller room sat next to one another on benches,” the report read.
A July 9 posting by Public Health Ontario also highlights the lack of evidence for the risks of singing: “The evidence regarding the act of singing with respect to the risk of COVID-19 transmission (in group settings such as choirs) is limited to a few observational studies. In these reports, it is noted that multiple sources of transmission (e.g., prolonged close contact, touching common objects or sharing food) may have contributed to disease spread.”
The Choral Canada letter points out that while no proper research has been published, some is in the preliminary stages, such as one in Boulder, Colo., that is also looking at wind instruments.
Fitzgerald acknowledged the science is still evolving.
“If we find ways that it can be done safely without increasing the risk, I think we’ll certainly consider that,” she said.
Peter Jackson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering health for The Telegram.