Museums and COVID Risk
|Terry Winters, Factors of Increase, 1988. The Broad Collection. (c) Terry Winters|
How much COVID risk does a museum visit pose? The first thing to say is that there are no hard statistics. Essentially all the world's museums closed early in the pandemic. All beliefs about risk are conjecture, based at best on uncertain and quickly evolving science.
In theory a single virus can cause a deadly infection. In practice the body's immune system almost always neutralizes the viruses it encounters. It takes hundreds or thousands of live virus particles to stand a substantial chance of overwhelming the immune system and launching an infection. However, a tiny droplet, expelled by a cough, can contain millions of viruses. Larger droplets may land on a metal or plastic surface where they may remain a hazard for days. Smaller droplets may linger in the air and travel on imperceptible drafts. A just-published study implicated "speech droplets" of asymptomatic persons as a major carrier of COVID-19. It offered evidence that merely talking loudly can spray droplets that persist in the air for 8 to 14 minutes.
This fits in with the observed pattern: The virus is most efficiently transmitted when people are indoors, in close quarters, speaking and breathing the same air (or touching the same things) for hours. Several well-studied cases drive current thinking on those points.
One is the church choir in Mount Vernon, Washington. The singers followed what they thought were prudent social distancing-measures for a 2-1/2 hour practice. Yet a single asymptomatic carrier infected most of the 60 choir members. Forty-five of the 60 developed symptoms, and two died.
Singing expels viral particles from the lungs. The choir practice spread the virus even though the members stood apart and avoided sharing sheet music.
|Floorplan of Seoul call center with seats of infected workers in blue|
University of Massachusetts biologist Erin Bromage summarizes the emerging consensus this way.
Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time
It's not just a matter of being exposed to the virus but how long you're exposed. Speaking, singing, and breathing heavily (gyms, joggers) increases the exposure.
Accept these premises, and museums appear to have several advantages over other cultural facilities. Museum visitors spend most of their time standing up (rather than seated, holding an armrest). They don't touch the art. Most don't speak much, and they don't spend too much time in one place.
|Pre-shutdown weekend crowds for "Michelangelo: Mind of the Master" at the Getty Center|
One area of concern might be docent tours. The group travels together with a continuously speaking docent and may spend an hour in each other's proximity. This could pose risks beyond that of briefly passing a hundred strangers.
My reading of the current state of knowledge: Assuming masks and social distancing, museums probably pose more risk than a trip to the park, but less than libraries, theaters, or concert halls.
It's museum guards and visitor associates who bear more cumulative risk than the visitors. That needs to be factored into any decision to re-open.