Fans crowd into an indoor concert in experiment on how to return to normality

Nadine Schmidt and Amy Woodyatt, CNNUpdated 22nd August 2020
LEIPZIG, GERMANY - AUGUST 22: Participants wearing FFP2 protective face masks hold up their tracer devices at the RESTART-19 Covid transmission risk assessment study in a concert setting at an indoor arena during the coronavirus pandemic on August 22, 2020 in Leipzig, Germany. The study, organized by the University Hospital of Halle (Saale), simulates a live concert venue with several thousand audience members in three different scenarios in order to develop risk reduction measures for large events. Participants wear tracer devices to track their movements and sensors measure aerosol currents in the arena. All participants had to undergo a Covid-19 test within the last 48 hours and test negative in order to take part.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Leipzig, Germany (CNN) — Ever since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered clubs, bars and concert halls around the world, music fans have been dreaming of the day they can once again visit a busy, sweaty venue to enjoy a gig with friends.
With infection rates rising in many European countries, this dream could be far off for now. But some music fans in Leipzig, Germany, have been given the chance to rock for a day in the name of science -- with the help of some glowing hand sanitizer and electronic trackers.
Researchers in the German city of Leipzig staged a 1,500-person experimental indoor concert on Saturday to better understand how Covid-19 spreads at big, busy events, and how to prevent it.
At the gig, which featured a live performance from musician Tim Bendzko, fans were given respiratory face masks, fluorescent hand gel and electronic "contact trackers" -- small transmitters that determine the contact rates and contact distances of the individual experiment participants.
Participants wearing FFP2 protective face masks took part in the Covid transmission risk assessment study in a concert setting in Leipzig, Germany.
Participants wearing FFP2 protective face masks took part in the Covid transmission risk assessment study in a concert setting in Leipzig, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Using data from the contact trackers, scientists from The University of Halle will monitor the number "critical contacts" had by each participant during specific times and locations, while the residue left by fluorescent hand gel will identify frequently touched surfaces. Researchers hope to use the data to find ways to bring big events, including sports, back safely.
Professor Michael Gekle, the dean of the university's medical faculty and a professor of physiology, told CNN the experiment was being conducted to better prepare authorities on how to conduct events in the upcoming autumn and winter seasons.
Participants wore FFP2 protective face masks during the performance.
Participants wore FFP2 protective face masks during the performance.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
"We cannot afford another lockdown," he said. "We have to gather the data now in order to be able to make valid predictions," he said.
"There is no zero risk if you want to have life. We want to give the politicians a tool in order to decide rationally whether to allow such an event or not. That means they have to have the tool to predict how many additional infected people such an event will produce," he said.
Researchers directed volunteers to run three scenarios -- one that simulated a concert pre-coronavirus, a second simulating a concert during the pandemic, with improved hygiene measures in place, and a third, with reduced participants. Scientists will gather the data, apply a mathematical model, and evaluate the hygiene interventions, with conclusions ready by the end of the year.
Singer Tim Bendzko performed for volunteers during the study.
Singer Tim Bendzko performed for volunteers during the study.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Researchers believe this is the first time an experiment of this scale has taken place in Europe, but say that different considerations would have to be applied depending on the type of event, the behavior of concert goers and whether patrons were allowed to consume alcohol.
"Of course, a concert with Rammstein would be different," he said.
Gekle told CNN that due to a low prevalence of the virus in the states of Saxony and Lower Saxony, participating in the study was low risk for volunteers, who underwent coronavirus testing 48 hours before participation, and were wearing masks during the show. "It's safer than flying to Majorca," he said.
The number of coronavirus infections in Germany has been climbing again since the end of July. On Saturday, the country saw its highest number of daily infections since April 26, with 2,034 new cases of Covid-19, according to Robert Koch institute, the country's center for disease and control.
The experiment may have been controlled, but for some in the crowd -- despite the lack of alcohol -- it felt like a return to normality.
Participants took a coronavirus test before being allowed to enter the study, and were temperature checked on arrival.
Participants took a coronavirus test before being allowed to enter the study, and were temperature checked on arrival.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
"This was our first real applause from the audience in months," Bendzko told CNN. "The atmosphere is surprisingly good -- it almost felt like a real concert.
"I wish that it will be possible to play at big concerts again someday soon," he said. "But we all understand that we now have to live with the virus and we have to take a certain risk."
Elli Blesz, 20, from Leipzig told CNN: "The atmosphere was really great, we all enjoyed the music -- it was nice to listen to live music after six months."
And Kira Stuetz, a 26-year-old student who attended the concert with her husband, said: "It was a little crazy." Recalling one of the pre-coronavirus simulations, where audience members sat together, she said that "at first it almost felt wrong all people came so close together. We thought this 'is a dream' because it's not allowed to be sitting together so close! But then it was really cool. I could not believe it that we were at a real concert again!"
Organizers around the world have been dipping their toes into the water to see when and how live events can be brought back in a world still suffering from the coronavirus pandemic -- in the UK, event organizers trialled concerts at an outdoor, purpose-made socially distant concert venue, where patrons sat in small groups on distant, raised platforms.
Some venues are experimenting with virtual events, drive-through concerts, mandated personal protective equipment, or temperature checks on arrival.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of people who participated in the experimental indoor concert. It was 1,500.