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I'm vaccinated. I love karaoke. Is it safe to sing in public again?
Other than impromptu balcony sing-a-longs, 2020 felt like the year the music died for folks who enjoy singing with others.
Because of COVID precautions, "they lost their sense of community from singing in a group environment," says Matthew Naunheim, an otolaryngologist in the Laryngology Division at Boston's Mass Eye and Ear.
That's true for choir members. And for those who are lovers of karaoke.
Among certain cultures and in particular countries, not having access to karaoke has led to a significant void in people's lives. In the Philippines, for instance, the country's Department of Health had to ask folks not to include karaoke as part of their family's 2020 holiday plans. "For a change, let us opt to have a solemn celebration with joyful Christmas songs from our favorite artists played on radios or online music platforms," Health Secretary Francisco T. Duque suggested. Karaoke bars remain closed there, and given the country's currently high rate of infections, it's looking like more silent nights are in store.
These sorts of regulations make sense given how high the risks of karaoke can be. "The truth of the matter is that when we sing, we put more droplets into the air than when we speak," explains Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Projecting our voices requires heavier breathing, and that makes all kinds of vocal performances a challenge right now.
With karaoke, it's not just the singing that's an issue, Naunheim adds. "It's more about the environment — typically a windowless, small area where a lot of people are gathered. They may be uninhibited because of the effects of alcohol, so people let their guard down," he says.
And we need to talk about the microphone. "We've all seen those people we swear are trying to eat the microphone. The microphone is literally on their lips — even before COVID, we didn't enjoy that," Althoff says. "There could be lingering moisture on a microphone because most have mesh or foam coverings that could hold droplets." And if those are COVID droplets, you definitely don't want them so close to your mouth.
So yes, it's not so shocking that karaoke has been the source of COVID outbreaks around the world. A Quebec City bar's karaoke event was linked to more than 80 cases in 2020. Early this year, there was a karaoke-fueled cluster in Oregon. In July, more than 40 cases were traced to Singapore's karaoke lounges, which were supposed to be operating as food and beverage outlets only. And in August, seven fully vaccinated food service workers got COVID after singing together in an Oahu karaoke bar. Hawaii's health department reported, "No masks were worn by the employees and no social distancing was practiced. Vaccination reduces but does not eliminate the risk of becoming infected and transmitting COVID-19 to others."
But that doesn't mean karaoke die-hards need to stop believin'. "A lot has changed since those early outbreaks, we know a lot more and we're getting back to doing things," Althoff says.
There are some pretty obvious ways to make a karaoke environment safer, including moving your singing sessions outside, says Naunheim, who notes that "porchfests" have been a popular way for his neighbors to present and enjoy music. Or you can experiment with tech options that let you sing in the safety of your own home. "With karaoke, you're often looking at a screen and using a microphone connected to speakers," Naunheim says, so it's not such a huge leap to Zoom crooning. (Although if anyone wants to duet or do a group number, be prepared for a time lag, he warns. Collective singing will prove that you're not perfectly synched up.)
For more of a pre-COVID karaoke experience, prepare to take a whole lot of precautions.
"First of all, get fully vaccinated. That's our first step not just for karaoke but so many things," Althoff says. Then it's time to ask questions, like, "Who are you doing this with?" Even if they're all vaccinated, she adds, "Are they people you'd trust that if they woke up that morning with a scratchy throat, they would take a rapid test?" You're better off in a private room where you have control over which people are around, she adds.
Another recommended step is to check on the number of cases in your area. If you have high community spread, you're at higher risk. And even if you're vaccinated, you need to recognize that you can still carry disease onward, which is especially dicey if you have anyone immunocompromised at home, notes Abraar Karan, an infectious disease fellow in Stanford University's Division of Infectious Diseases and Geographic Medicine. For anyone in line for a booster, he recommends getting that jab before joining a group celebration of '80s rock ballads.
Althoff also suggests considering your upcoming plans for the next two weeks. If you have a big trip you're scheduled to take or an important project due for work, think through what would happen if you test positive, she says.
Other key factors include cleanliness and ventilation. Just walking into a space, it can be hard for a layperson to evaluate air quality or hygiene level, so Althoff recommends doing some homework ahead of time by calling or seeing what you can find online.
Certain karaoke businesses have been trumpeting the changes they've made to help customers feel more comfortable. These include temperature checks, contactless song menus and single-use microphone covers, which kind of look like little shower caps. Taking that image a step farther, one Canadian bar has its customers sing from a "shower stall" behind a plastic curtain.
Voicebox, a chain of private-suite karaoke bars based in Portland, Ore, brought in an epidemiologist from Oregon Health & Science University to consult on its reopening plan. "His biggest piece of advice is that there's no silver bullet — it's all about layers of protection," says co-owner Scott Simon (no relation to the NPR host). That's why Voicebox boosted its HVAC systems with Merv 13 filters and needlepoint bipolar ionization and added HEPA filtration devices to each suite. And it created a multi-step microphone cleaning strategy that involves screwing off the entire top, and running the various pieces through the sanitizer of a commercial dishwasher.
Even with all of these safety measures in place, Simon adds, some guests still wear masks the entire time.
Masking is a smart karaoke precaution, notes Naunheim, who points out that professional singers in his town of Watertown, Mass., are expected to wear a mask unless they can maintain a distance of at least 25 feet from the audience. "It's harder for the singers I take care of to sing with masks in place," he says, so he recommends searching for styles that provide enough room to move the lips comfortably. "It's not a perfect solution, but it's adequate for now."
And during a pandemic, we have to face the music.
Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to NPR.