How did we get to the point that singing is considered to be a dangerous act?
That's where we are, in this era of COVID-19. Last week, the nation was reopening bars, restaurants, churches, music venues. Now, more than half the states in the country are pulling back from their premature announcements that the coronavirus pandemic is over, and life may now return to normal.
"There is a lot that we still don't know," Dr. Stuart Weiss admitted last week during "Performing in a Pandemic," a webinar presented by The Rochester Area Community Foundation and the Rochester Fringe Festival.
Weiss is a New York City endocrinologist and an expert in pandemic response. As Weiss outlined the challenges last week, it became clear that simple declarations of "restaurants may now resume indoor seating" and "churches are now open" are not adequate. Because each activity, and each facility, comes with its own set of parameters. Measurable elements that are not hope and belief, but science.
Getting sick, Weiss said, has to do with how many particles you get into your body. And not all situations are equal when it comes to the distribution of COVID-19 particles.
So you want to attend a classical performance? OK, that string section is probably safe enough. The killers lurk in the back of the orchestra, with the woodwinds and the brass. Flutes, oboes and clarinets are what Weiss calls instruments offering a straight shot for shooting particles at the audience.
How about that room you're sitting in? That situation goes beyond wearing masks, and maintaining preventive distancing. Ventilation in an enclosed space determines who gets infected. Exhaust fans and air conditioners are welcome, but not if they're simply recirculating the air in the building, and not venting it outward.
A combination of people singing, talking loudly, poor ventilation, and a casual attitude toward wearing face coverings, Weiss said, is the perfect way to spread the virus.
President Donald Trump's refusal to wear a face covering and his faulty declarations on the coronavirus spread have created a culture war over the social cautions called for by medical professionals. Vice President Mike Pence was at a Dallas church last Sunday, where a choir of more than 100 people sang. Choirs, as Weiss notes, are super-spreaders of the virus. And this was happening in a state where reported cases of COVID-19 have surged to more than 5,000 a day.
Sure, it's a tough call. To survive, businesses must be open. And a lack of leaders -- or their unwillingness to lead in a critical time -- isn't clearing up the confusion. We see different interpretations of what "reopening" means to entertainment venues.
Some, such as Abilene Bar and Lounge, have reopened quietly, with music on an outdoor patio. Less quiet is Montage Music Hall's "Un-Quarantined Festival," set for July 10, 11, and 12. Three nights of local metal bands. Face coverings are required, social distancing is encouraged, capacity will be limited. But it's a small room, and metal bands are not known for vocal inhibition.
These extremes are what Weiss calls the social contract between the venue operator and the audience. "Risk assessment," as he says. "Hazard analysis."
At Geva Theatre Center, Artistic Director Mark Cuddy acknowledges the operator-audience contract.
"At some point, we're going to have to take some risk and say we're going to come back in some way, shape or form," he says. "But we're still working through all of those issues."
To that end, Geva canceled its annual fundraising gala, which it has held for 19 years. At first, it planned to put in its place a virtual fundraising show, fueled with skits and spoofs and parodies. But then Geva shelved the virtual gala as well. Now, COVID-19 was not the only issue. Solidarity with civil unrest, and Black Lives Matter, was also at hand.
"That's just where we're at," Cuddy says. "Not just the 'we' Geva, but where the community is at. It's not where our nation is at right now. It would be tone-deaf of us to think otherwise."
And Cuddy admits that the next season at Geva, and the productions already announced, are "not going to happen." At least, the season won't happen as announced. Some shows will be dropped, substituted by others that will fit the reduced capacity of the theater. Shows that will be safer to produce for the actors and audience.
Risk assessment. Hazard analysis.
"We're not going to be able to make the risk zero," Weiss admits. "The way to make the risk zero is by closing everything."
Do we wait, sentenced to nights at home, binge-watching cable television shows? Or do we plunge ahead, and assume a vaccine will arrive, soon enough for most of us?
Weiss points out that, decades after the arrival of the HIV virus, there is still no HIV vaccine.
"That's the third possibility," he says. "That we have to live with this."
Jerry Englerth, remembered
Jerry Englerth, who passed away last week at age 84, was a longtime management guy at Kodak and Xerox. But he's most remembered for two minutes and 28 seconds of interstellar space romance.
A 21-year-old singer and rockabilly guitarist from Rochester, in late 1957, Englerth -- and the world -- was startled by the news that the Soviet Union had put the first satellite into Earth orbit. But Englerth was also inspired, and quickly wrote and recorded "Sputnik (Satellite Girl)" with a local vocal group, The Four Ekkos. With the help of local deejay Nick Nickson, he got the song into the hands of Brunswick Records. A few months later, the label released it. "Sputnik (Satellite Girl)" was a danceable 45 rpm, with Jerry Lee Lewis hiccups in the vocals, and lines such as "Well, ever since the satellite's birth, we've been circlin' around the Earth, just my baby and me and that spoot-a-nik makes three."
Brunswick also re-named Englerth. To the rockabilly world, he was now Jerry Engler.
He played gigs all over the country and Canada, sharing a stage with Sam Cooke. He opened on a package tour with Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers and Paul Anka that hit the Rochester War Memorial.
Holly invited Englerth to his studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where the two recorded a pair of Englerth's songs. Holly taught him how to overdub.
And then, unexpectedly quickly, it was over. Englerth had married young, divorced young, and by 1959 had remarried. "Sputnik (Satellite Girl") was long off the charts and, despite the sessions with Holly, Englerth hadn't come up with a follow-up. There was also a bit of a backlash. With McCarthyism still echoing in the halls of Congress, some people thought the song was a little too celebratory of an achievement by a communist country.
Back in 1992, I asked Englerth about that. He said his response to that criticism was, "This is about science, not politics."
And an outer-space romance could arguably be about chemistry.
He worked at Kodak, and then Xerox. He moved from Irondequoit to Chili, continuing to write and record music, and backing off from rockabilly to more of a country sound, music he self-released on CD. He even re-recorded "Sputnik (Satellite Girl)" and -- hoping to catch the ear of record collectors -- put it out as a 45 rpm backed by one of the songs he'd recorded with Holly, "What A You Gonna Do."
What's the life span of a one-hit wonder? Fifty years after he'd recorded "Sputnik (Satellite Girl)," Englerth said he was still seeing occasional royalty checks.
Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com.