When New Orleans lifted Covid-19 restrictions for bars, restaurants, and music venues this past May, Ruston Henry Jr, 30, went to Kajun’s Pub. He had a mission: to sing at a karaoke night for the first time since the pandemic started. His comeback song was the 90s ballad Kiss from a Rose by Seal.
“Normally I’m very reserved, but when I do karaoke I feel like I can show a different side of me,” he says. “I missed it so much.”
I can relate. For 17 months, I’ve yearned to watch a stranger recover from heartbreak by growling You Oughta Know; to applaud someone’s dauntlessly tender attempt at singing Halo; to belt out a Michelle Branch duet with my friend Isabel while a cluster of unconditionally supportive patrons cheer us on.
During the worst of the pandemic, karaoke seemed like a distant beacon of light, something to look forward to when Covid was eradicated and we could collectively celebrate. Instead, we’ve stumbled toward the finish line: bars have opened and closed again, mask mandates have been lifted and restored. Karaoke venues across the US, Canada and England are largely open at the moment, to varying degrees depending on location. But with the Delta variant on the rise, karaoke’s return has not marked the carefree party we pined for.
“I wouldn’t go to karaoke right now,” says Dr Kimberly Prather, an atmospheric chemist and aerosol expert at the University of California-San Diego. “One side of me is happy to see people enjoying life. The other side of me is concerned.”
From a public health standpoint, Prather’s caution makes sense. An unmasked mouth can send aerosolized Covid-19 virus particles flying a distance upwards of 6ft. That’s a lot of potential contagion in a single room, particularly one where the uniting purpose is to serenade dozens of others, passing around a communal microphone covered in the previous singer’s respiratory dew.
Dr Jelena Srebric, the acting associate dean of research at the University of Maryland’s A James Clark School of Engineering, studies indoor and outdoor air quality. She says that without higher vaccination rates, indoor karaoke has the potential to be super-spreading – particularly when performers are unmasked. That’s especially true in the age of Delta, now said to be as contagious as chickenpox.
“You wouldn’t drink water from a poisoned well,” says Srebric. “Why would you go to a bar without a mask, without being vaccinated?”
‘I do not feel safe’
Before lockdown orders were imposed in New Jersey, Cat Chez, who has run her company Karaoke Cat for over 20 years, says she felt uneasy about working amid the intensifying pandemic.
“I was so relieved,” she says of the eventual shutdown. “You can’t wipe Covid away from the outside of a mic.”
Though Chez is now back in business, she remains worried for everyone’s health and safety. She got rid of physical song books, and now uses a mobile system to take singer requests. She covers the microphones with protection, one layer for the vaccinated and two for those who haven’t had their shots: a layer of mesh and another of plastic. A large percentage of her guests are unvaccinated, she says, even with rapidly climbing case counts of the Delta variant.
“I do not feel safe,” says Chez. “I had so many people come up to me without masks on even before the mask mandate was lifted. It’s very possible that’s how I got Covid and spread it to my own children.” Her daughter still suffers breathing difficulties and heart abnormalities from the virus.
Jeff Ng, the owner of San Francisco’s Pandora Karaoke & Bar, says that nightly crowds haven’t yet returned to pre-Covid numbers – a phenomenon he attributes to the exodus of tech employees more than pandemic precaution. But the club has been steady since reopening in June.
“Once people heard masks were optional they just threw them all away,” Ng says of San Francisco bar patrons in general. The karaoke enthusiasts, he notes, have come back with similar fervor.
“They have not slowed down at all,” says Ng.
But Delta is complicating the situation. Last Tuesday, the CDC recommended that even vaccinated individuals resume wearing masks in public indoor spaces, in locations where cases are surging. In late July, the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance, a local industry group, began recommending that establishments require proof of vaccination or a 72-hour negative Covid test from patrons wanting to come inside.
To non-expert outsiders, these safety measures may seem extreme. For many scientists, they are not extreme enough.
“We’re playing into the virus by continuing activities that allow it to spread,” says Prather. “The longer we do that, the longer our lives are on hold. We can still live life in other ways. Just don’t pick the riskiest activities, for a little bit longer.”
The diehard’s dilemma
Around the world, Covid cases continue to be transmitted in venues where karaoke has returned. In April, South Korea ordered closures of nightclubs and karaoke bars yet again, citing fears of a possible fourth wave. More recently, in mid-July, Singapore reported its largest increase in domestically transmitted Covid cases in 10 months after 42 new cases were linked to a karaoke lounge. (Karaoke is still against the rules in Singapore. The lounge was supposed to be operating as a bar and restaurant.)
But some karaoke stalwarts see the emotional satisfaction, and maybe just the fun, as worth the risk.
Following a statewide ban in August last year, New York City diehards attempted, unsuccessfully, to take the hobby underground. And last fall, after 80 Covid cases were traced back to a single bar’s karaoke night in Quebec, some pushed back against the province’s move to temporarily ban the activity. A Quebec performer known as Billy Karaoke told the Canadian Press that karaoke has “a therapeutic effect”, and that during the pandemic, “it’s more essential than ever”.
Indeed, singing has long been recognized as emotionally and psychologically beneficial. A 2016 study led by the Centre for Performance Science at London’s Royal College of Music showed that singing in a group significantly reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in participants. A 2015 study conducted by the University of Oxford found that participants who sang together bonded faster than participants who completed non-musical activities in each other’s company.
But communal singing was also linked to one of the highest-profile early outbreaks of the pandemic. In March 2020, a choir practice in Washington state resulted in 52 Covid cases. Two people died.
In a subsequent study on the release of aerosol particles while singing, researchers at Sweden’s Lund University concluded that loud and consonant-rich singing tends to significantly spread aerosol particles. According to the study, the louder the song, “the greater the concentration of aerosols and droplets”.
“Singing does not need to be silenced, but presently it should be done with appropriate measures to reduce the risk of spreading infection,” Jakob Löndahl, associate professor of Aerosol Technology at Lund University, said in a media release. Löndahl and his team ultimately recommended singing while socially distanced and wearing a mask, in an environment with good ventilation.
Dr Paul Kwak, an otolaryngologist and voice expert at New York University’s Langone Voice Center, adds a caveat to the Swedish study’s findings.
“You can get pretty loud without spewing a lot of aerosols,” Kwak says. “It really depends on how people get loud.”
Kwak is currently examining the correlation between aerosol dispersal and voice efficiency. Highly trained singers typically have more voice efficiency than amateur singers and according to Kwak, are likely to emit fewer aerosol particles. But because karaoke tends to attract amateur singers, the opposite may be true.
Kwak says there is room for optimism. It’s not the singing itself that’s problematic, but the environment in which the singing takes place. Any indoor venue with poor ventilation and a high population of people will present more risk than an outdoor venue with a reduced and socially distanced group.
So, what would a safe karaoke setting look like at this phase of the pandemic?
“If people really have to do karaoke, can they do it outside?,” says Prather. “The risk would plummet. It will never go to zero, but it would be better. Inside you are completely relying on the ventilation. Without masks, indoors is a bad place to be.”
Outdoor karaoke would be safer, echoes Srebric, but simply being outside is not a guarantee against aerosol spread. “If we’re talking about urban quarters surrounded by buildings, that significantly reduces how much air you’re getting.”
Barring fresh air singalongs, Prather suggests that indoor karaoke establishments carry hand-held carbon dioxide censors so that operators can measure the amount of “rebreathed air” in circulation. Close contact spread won’t be solved by ventilation, she says, so air filtration should also be a priority; Prather recently worked with a school board to have particle-counters installed, but HEPA filters are an easily acquired protection that should be placed close to where the singers perform.
“The best thing you can do to control this virus is to block it at the source,” she says, noting that lapel microphones under masks, which are being used more frequently in professional fields, could also be used in karaoke settings to reduce aerosol spread.
It’s a difficult predicament. As Bertolt Brecht once wrote: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing, about the dark times.” In the saga of karaoke during Covid, the spiritual comfort of singing through the dark times comes at the risk of perpetuating the dark times even further. We can sing in our showers, can’t we?
But the joy of karaoke is in the fellowship. For there to be fellowship, we need to survive.
“People need to understand that you cannot sing on a microphone that someone else just sang on if you aren’t vaccinated,” says Chez. “Karaoke is great therapy, but we don’t want anyone ending up in the Covid unit.”