By Caitlin Custer
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is making its autumnal return to Powell Hall, ready to perform music live for audiences once again.
As the 2019/2020 season faced rapid changes beginning in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the SLSO quickly enlisted the help of a team of infectious disease specialists to help ensure the health and safety of its musicians, staff, and patrons.
The team was led first by Dr. Abigail Carlson, then Dr. Stephen Liang, both of Washington University School of Medicine (Dr. Carlson moved to a post with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) over the summer). The medical team, along with a team of SLSO staff—who have been working remotely since March—developed concert protocols that adhere to the highest standards of health and safety.
The primary SLSO COVID-19 team is made up of of staff who cover front of house operations, backstage operations, facilities, and human resources. “We meet with the medical team at least every two weeks,” said Kelsey Templeton, the SLSO’s Director of Hospitality and Audience Experience, “and we also have more regular, day-to-day communication, with conversations happening over email hourly.”
The SLSO’s ability to offer concerts again—beginning on October 15—required approval of its COVID plan by the City of St. Louis Health Department. The SLSO team submitted a plan of new standard operating procedures to the Health Department in July, which was followed by a walkthrough by city health officials, including Health Department Director Dr. Fredrick Echols.
City officials approved the plan, allowing for up to 300 patrons to visit Powell Hall’s 2,683-seat auditorium for concerts while maintaining social distancing and wearing masks at all times.
For concerts this fall, the SLSO is starting with a more conservative approach, allowing a maximum of 100 patrons to attend. A new seat map was designed to keep parties at least six feet apart, though in practice that distance is larger.
Great care has been taken to develop protocols for patron safety, from touchless ticketing to sanitization stations, in addition to an always-on mask policy. The new protocols also include designated pathways to enter the hall based on seating areas, preventing lines from forming and patrons crossing paths once in the building.
The concert programs have also been modified to be an hour and without an intermission.
Between events, time is reserved to complete six fresh air exchanges within the hall, as well as complete cleaning and sanitization of the hall, which has had its air filters upgraded to maximum efficiency. Fresh air circulation will continue during each concert, with separate air handlers for the stage and auditorium.
Musicians, like visitors and staff, are required to wear masks at all times. Wind and brass players may remove their masks only while playing. “To protect our wind and brass musicians, their fellow colleagues on stage, and the audience,” said Dr. Liang, “a lot of work has gone into increasing awareness and knowledge about COVID-19 within our community as well as reducing exposure to and removing any potential aerosols from the concert hall.”
The new socially distanced stage plot includes plexiglass between rows of wind and brass players and ensures the air from those musicians is immediately directed to the return filtration system.
In addition to mask and temperature check requirements for musicians and staff, a thorough plan exists in the case of a positive COVID-19 test result among musicians, staff, or patrons. This plan includes suspension of event activity, HIPAA-compliant contact tracing, robust sanitization, and quarantine procedures.
As the SLSO programs shorter concerts, the orchestra will also utilize smaller performing forces. Music Director Stéphane Denève will conduct two weeks of concerts with a chamber orchestra, whose ranks will not exceed 45 musicians.
For Dr. Liang, working with the SLSO has “been a real privilege to ensure that musicians, staff, and patrons can return safely and with confidence to Powell Hall for live performances.” Liang noted how “the leadership has gone tremendous lengths to understand and operationalize public health strategies to prevent the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19,” and that he is “truly inspired by the courage and passion with which the SLSO has labored to bring music back into all of our lives after all these months.”
To see some of the new protocols in action, watch the video below.
For more information, please visit the SLSO’s page on COVID-19 Safety Protocols.
Caitlin Custer is the SLSO's Communications Manager.