Risk of Infection Is No Reason to Stop Singing
As churches begin to reopen after over a month of quarantine, leadership are wisely asking questions concerning what kinds of social distancing measures remain important as they take steps to regain some semblance of normalcy.
One such question asks whether churches should sing. Since singing produces a large volume of airborne particles, the reasoning goes, perhaps churches should refrain from singing until we can be sure that the risk of coronavirus infection has been significantly minimized. Articles on this subject are popping up all over the internet, with authors offering various degrees of caution concerning the dangers of singing during this pandemic.
The truth is that the science behind the risk of infections with this particular virus is still in flux, and even medical experts debate how concerned we need to be over airborne particles. However, that is really beside the point for what I want to raise in this essay. These articles are not even raising one particular issue that I think is actually the central issue that should influence all of our decisions as we reopen.
What’s our goal?
It seems to me that most, if not all of the articles about church reopenings begin with the assumption that our number one goal must be to prevent any and all sickness. If this is our goal, then we certainly mustn’t sing, and we probably shouldn’t even meet until there is a cure.
However, preventing all sickness was never the original goal and cannot be now. Here’s why.
Temporary quarantine was necessary.
From the very beginning I have been convinced that temporary quarantine was a wise thing to do, primarily because all available data indicates that COVID-19 is worse than the typical seasonal flu in two key ways:
- COVID-19 is at minimum three times more infectious than the flu.
- COVID-19 is at minimum three times more deadly for a certain demographic.
That final bolded clause is key, however. COVID-19 is more deadly, but primarily for elderly or otherwise unhealthy individuals. Conservative estimates indicate that at least one third of all deaths from COVID-19 thus far have occurred in nursing homes. As of late April, of 37,308 deaths recorded by the CDC, only 1,036 were people under the age of 45, and just 51 were below the age of 25. And even among those, most of the deaths were from underlying conditions in addition to the virus.
*It is important to state here that the statistics are very much in flux due to how long it has taken to increase testing. Most of the figures above are on the low end of estimates; I’ve heard other reports that COVID-19 is thirty-five times higher than the case mortality for the most deadly flu seasons in the past decade. The uncertainty should increase our humility and trust in the Lord as we weigh all of the factors.
“Flattening the curve”
The reason we shut down for a month was to make sure our country was prepared because of the dire projections and uncertainty with the disease. In particular, the original goal was to “flatten the curve,” that is, spread out the infection over a longer period of time (not completely prevent infection) so that the healthcare system would not be overtaxed. If the number of hospitalizations had spiked too quickly, rising above the medical capacity, more people would have died simply due to lack of care (this is what happened, for example, in Italy).
Perhaps you saw a chart like this in the early days of the shutdown.
The dotted horizontal line represents the healthcare capacity, that is, number of hospital rooms, beds, ventilators, staff, etc. Considering the infection rate of COVID-19, all available data suggested in late March that without protective measures, the number of people infected with the virus would have quickly spiked above the healthcare capacity, and thus we would have had what Italy had: people dying due to lack of care who wouldn’t have died otherwise. And it worked. Our healthcare system was never taxed. People still got sick; some people died. But none died due to lack of care.
But notice an important point about the chart: The same number of people get the virus in both scenarios. The only difference is in how quickly the number of people get infected.
The more recent narrative by the media and some politicians is that we must stay closed until we can prevent all infection, and that narrative seems to be assumed by many Christians as churches reopen; but that was never the original purpose of the shutdown. The purpose of flattening the curve was not to prevent infections but to spread them out over a broader time.
The truth is that in a sin-cursed world there will be disease, and there will be death; this is not insensitive, it is the sad reality. We can never fully escape this reality, and this is not a new reality with COVID-19. This is how it has always been since God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden.
Infections will continue, and that’s OK, especially for young and healthy people.
And actually, for young and healthy people, getting the virus is actually a good thing; it creates what is called “herd immunity”—the more people who get the virus and develop antibodies, the less it will spread to others who haven’t had it. The chance that a young and health person who contracts COVID-19 will die or even exhibit terrible symptoms is incredibly low.
This informs our goal as churches: In church reopenings, our concern should not be to completely stop any and all infections; that was never the original goal of the quarantine, and it’s actually impossible.
Rather, our goal should be to protect the especially vulnerable, such as the elderly or those with preexisting conditions.
At this point, most people can now treat COVID-19 almost like the seasonal flu.
And this is where comparing COVID-19 with the seasonal flu is helpful; COVID-19 is slightly more contagious than the flu and results in a slightly higher percentage of deaths, but only among the vulnerable. But people who are medically vulnerable already take special care during flu season; they should do the same thing now.
And just as young, healthy people don’t necessarily take a whole lot of extra precautions during flu season, we do not need to take unnecessarily strict precautions now. Because this is slightly worse than the flu, perhaps we should refrain from hugging or even shaking hands for a while (though we need to resume this soon, too); maybe extra hand washing is wise. But young, healthy people can certainly begin to gather and do normal things like singing.
In other words, there seem to be three positions currently articulated on the virus and prospect of reopening:
- COVID-19 was never worse than the flu, and so of course we should reopen. The data simply does not support this.
- We must stay quarantined until we can ensure that no one will get sick or die. This is impossible.
- COVID-19 is worse than the flu, especially for the vulnerable, and so it was wise to quarantine in order to spread out the rate of infections and make sure our healthcare system could care for the ill. Now, we can slowly reopen, and the vulnerable should take extra precautions, just like they normally would during flu season.
This third option fits the data, cares for the vulnerable, and matches the originally stated purpose behind the government shutdown.
So should we sing?
So what does this mean for churches, especially for worship and music ministries?
- Churches can begin to gradually regather, especially in regions where the virus has not been bad.
- People should take normal, common-sense precautions like frequent hand washing, and perhaps continue social distancing for a couple of months.
- It may be wise to hold off on large ensembles or choirs for the summer months.
- Medically vulnerable people should take extra care for a while. Perhaps elderly people should refrain from singing in the choir or sitting near others for the time being.
Scripture is clear: Do not neglect to meet together (Hebrews 10:25); while it was prudent to temporarily quarantine for the good of our neighbor, we accomplished the only objective possible—flattening the curve—and so it is time to regather.
Scripture is also clear that when we gather, we should be singing (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19). Will singing increase the risk of infections? Maybe, though the science is far from conclusive on this. But even if singing will increase the risk of infection, our objective was never to completely prevent infections—in a sin cursed world that is not and never was a possibility.
Therefore, it is time once again to start singing to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with our hearts to the Lord.