The Joys and Germs of Singing in Church: The Fascinating Science behind Reopening Churches
Just how dangerous is attending church, really?
I mean, if a person infected with COVID-19 sat next to you in church, exactly how long would it take for you to get infected? I’ve been talking to a lot of experts and the answer may surprise you.
Every week, the media warns us about the “dangers of church choirs” even though, the vast majority of churches don’t even have choirs anymore. It’s almost funny to hear people’s perceptions of church. We are told, “Singing is perhaps the most dangerous activity for community spread” which led to a tidal wave of city-wide bans that specifically targeted Jews, Muslims, and Christians. One county in California was so terrified of churches singing that, they decided to make it illegal for churches to even record videos of singing (I kid you not).
So let’s go there: Is singing more dangerous when it comes to viral spread? Absolutely. And do churches need to pay serious attention to this fact? Yes. But, should we indefinitely shut them all down? Of course not. Ironically, people who physically attend church once a week live 7-14 years longer than the general population. Yet, epidemiologists note that this giant life extension only happens for Christians who go to physical church. So, here’s the ultimate question: Can we find a way to minimize the risks while maximizing the benefits?
Now, we’ve all heard a lot of opinions; but, not a lot of science. So, for a moment, could we just lay aside the extreme voices and look at the actual science? And here’s where we’ll start: If a person infected with COVID-19 sat next to you in church, exactly how long would it take for you to get infected? Get ready for some fascinating thoughts!
Keep in mind, despite all we know about SARS-CoV2, there is far more we don’t know. So, if you’re looking for clean cut answers, you’ll likely to be disappointed. But, that said, the preliminary studies on SARS-CoV2 indicate that it takes at least 1000 droplets of the virus to cause an infection. Obviously, this number is still being debated. And keep in mind, the healthier you are, the more droplets it would take. However, let’s assume this is true for the following hypothetical situation: Standing in an Elevator.
THE ELEVATOR LESSON:
Nobody fully knows how contagious SARS-CoV2 is yet. But, we know how a typical typical flu virus spreads. So let’s use this for our lesson.
The simple act of breathing (when a person has the flu) can release 33 infection particles a minute into the air. And by comparison, loud speaking and singing can increase to 100-200 particles per minute. A sneeze can release 30,000! Thus, if you shared an elevator with an infected person, and all you did was breathe, it would take about 30.3 minutes to inhale enough particles to get sick (1000 droplets divided by 33 droplets a minute = 30.3 min). Again, you needed a minimum of 1000 particles to become infected. And the infected person breathed out 33 droplets a minute into your air-space. Make sense?
Now, let’s say you were stuck in an elevator with an infected person who was singing. Using the same math, it would take far less: About 5 minutes (which would be a pretty long song… or a really slow elevator ride).
Now, for all you hair-splitters out there, I’ll admit: This is an over-simplification. After all, if a person with SARS-CoV2 sneezed directly into your mouth (in that same elevator), you could reach the infection threshold in a single second. Thus, the “Type of Exposure” + the “Size of the Room” + the “Length of exposure” all matter a lot. And I haven’t even talked about how the humidity of the air can reduce pathogens by at least 66%. (See PDF: MasksDon-twork—-4)
THE LARGE ROOM LESSON:
But to keep this science lesson moving, let’s take this situation out of an elevator and put you into a large room: If the cubic capacity of the room is large and socially distant, this “5 singing minutes to infection threshold” could easily go right back to 30 minutes. And then, toss in an industrial HVAC system to move the air, or air-purifiers, and the time could be significantly longer.
And why does air-circulation matter? Well, on an airplane, engineers discovered that, a simple modification of the air-circulation can reduce air-particles by 50%. Or, at Substance, (the church I pastor), we not only have brand new industrial HVAC systems in all of our buildings but, we have double at our Northtown Campus. This enables us to suck a significant number of particulates out of the air. This means, it would take significantly longer to breath in 1000 flu particles.
And then, let’s say: The church reduces seating capacity by 50% (assuming social distancing works). Once again, it takes double the amount of time to ingest the threshold amount of particles.
THEN, let’s say, you have 33% of the people not singing (which is quite typical). Once again, you reduce particles by another significant amount. Then, let’s say, 33% of the audience wears a mask (in case they cough or sneeze). Assuming masks even work, you reduce particles by another 15-33%. Then let’s say, the church cranks the humidity to a pathogen hostile level. Then, lets say, the church has some sort of screening requirement (like infra-red thermometers) – it could significantly reduce the odds of any sick person even entering. And THEN, let’s assume the church has “self-screening” requirements, (like “Don’t come if you feel sick / were exposed / or traveled from a hotspot). Once again, the risk is reduced.
So, are you getting the picture here? Almost all of the above solutions can chop the risk by an additional 15-50% percent. And I haven’t even begun to suggest basic things like: Reduce the number of songs; Reduce the length of the service; or, allow only a single soloist to sing while the rest worship. I mean, it’s like a pie chart where any number of simple steps could significantly split the risk portion into an infinitely smaller slice. And if all of these factors were managed well and calculated for, your risk of infection through singing & breathing is ridiculously low.
But there’s a big HOWEVER: it only takes one clueless infected person to help you win the infection lottery! So, imagine that one sick person refuses to stay home; or they’re asymptomatic and somehow pass an infra-red scan, refuse to wear a mask; they walk unusually close and sneeze a giant gob of spit into your mouth. And Kablam! You’re sick. And the New York Times will release another absurd article like this one ignorantly blaming all the world’s problems on a religious minority that is less than 8% of the American population.
But my point is this: The media (and many State governments) are pretending that churches are all the same. We’re all big chaotic huggers who listen to antiquated choirs, (who hate science) with no social distancing and no capacity to manage any of these things.
So let’s get serious: the real risks are similar to driving a car: If you drive an unsafe car with broken headlights at night, while talking on the phone, while doing shots of liquor, without a seat-belt, while wearing a Halloween mask, then YES: that is unsafe! (That sums up my teen years in Wisconsin, J/k). But seriously: Reducing your risk isn’t rocket science people! And we certainly don’t need to “outlaw driving.” And we certainly don’t outlaw driving for certain people groups – which is sadly how many local and state officials have been approaching Covid.
So, what’s the first step in stopping this craziness? For starters, let’s stop confusing “Science” with “Containment Strategies” that are based on science. When Government leaders issue guidelines, they make these two things sound the same; however, they are profoundly different. And it results in a very contentious and unproductive environment on social media.
For example, only a week ago, the Governor of Minnesota told us (along with the Minnesota Department of Health) that: Restaurants are safe to have 50 people; but churches, mosques and synagogues cannot be trusted to operate with more than 10 people safely – even if they’re outside. And they must have masks on. And, then we were told, “This is science.”
NOTE: This was called the “Minnesota’s Stay-Safe Plan” as it was released on Wednesday, May 20th. Of course, by Friday, May 22nd, the Department of Justice threatened to prosecute States who employ discriminatory strategies for the sake of risk mitigation. Even more, the C.D.C. revised their recommendations. And by Saturday, the “stay safe plan” was revised for churches to gather up to 250 people. 
But this is not Science people; rather, it’s a Containment Strategy that is informed by scientific principles (and a lot of discriminatory fear). Indeed, it’s a containment strategy that assumes Jews, Muslims and Christians are incapable of risk mitigation while Restaurant owners are notoriously sanitary and safe? (Has anyone else seen Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsey!?)
And Yes, I admit that singing creates more particulates. It increases risks. But why can’t religious organizations be trusted to mitigate those risks? We’re even fine with being held accountable. But, to not even give churches a chance? That seems a bit extreme.
People keep telling me lame anecdotes about a dangerous choir in Washington and a church in Arkansas. But come on people: This is not science. This is fear plus scientific ideas plus an assumption that people are implicitly irresponsible and must be controlled by the State.
Thankfully, the CDC has recently revised their advice for churches, taking a lot of the fear away. But, if you’re worried about your church, (or a church in your city), simply help them become better. They would probably welcome your help. But don’t social media shame. And certainly, don’t start tossing sharp nails across church parking lots like they’re doing in Kentucky. (Again, I kid you not. This is how bad it’s gotten.)
Can we all just decide: Educating is better than controlling. Dialoging is better than shaming. There are many curves that need flattening. And the more we listen to one another, the quicker we can come up with bipartisan solutions and laws that are sophisticated and non-discriminatory. At the end of the day, every church must take personal responsibility for the safety of its people. And if ICU bed-loads become over-whelmed, 99% of all churches would be happy to self-restrict again – which is why Governors need to start publishing those metrics.
And even if churches do everything right, there are always risks. But those risks are reasonable.
Besides, here’s what we’re missing: The average church invests $140,000 a year into its community (in the form of food shelves, suicide prevention, drug rehab, financial counseling). Indeed, churches reduce racial tension. And, not surprisingly, every week that churches are physically closed, over-dose deaths and suicides are spiking. When a church is shut down, studies show it dramatically increases levels of assault, burglary, larceny in a city. When a church physically meets, it brings $4 million to 11.2 million annually into the local economy. If you go to a physical church on a weekly basis you are 22% less likely to be clinically depressed; you’re more likely to manage your life better, and time better;you’re more likely to complete degrees and accomplish academic achievements; as well as have increased “mental well-being.” And to boot, regular church attendees live significantly longer than the general population– at least seven to fourteen years longer than non-religious people.
So, the real question isn’t: ‘is it safe to go to church?’ but rather,
“is it safe to continue cancelling physical church?”
“Let us not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24-25
Peter Haas – Lead Pastor of Substance Church – an international multisite church based in Minneapolis. Peter is also a dj-turntablist who produces & tours with Substance Variant. He writes comedy books on spirituality: “Pharisectomy: How to Remove Your Inner Pharisee and Other Religiously Transmitted Diseases” (2012) and Broken Escalators (2015). See www.SubstanceChurch.com – @peterhaas1 (twitter & instagram)
 In my state of Minnesota, Commissioner Steve Grove (MN Dept of employment and economic development) went viral as saying: “we need to stop churches from singing” – which, in all fairness, he was taken out of context. He was merely trying to talk about “higher risk activities.”
 Overall, the reduction in mortality attributable to churchgoing is twenty-five percent – a huge amount in epidemiological studies.” Once again, research thought that, perhaps this was simply due to having strong supportive relationships. But, non-church-centered groups didn’t experience the same effect. Nor did people of worldviews other than Judeo-Christian. (One example: L.H. Powell, L.Shahabit, and C.E. Thoresen, “Religion and spirituality: Linkages to physical health,” American Psychologist 58 (2003): 36-52… as quoted in Lonliness, pg.261)
 Generally speaking, experts argue that consumer grade masks don’t prevent you from getting the virus; but, they reduce your likelihood of giving the virus. However, this is greatly debated. And there are dozens of studies that indicate that, when it comes to influenza type viruses, SEE: MasksDon-twork—-4
 See, the New York Times article: “The Road to Coronavirus Hell Was Paved by Evangelicals” by Katherine Stewart. The article was so outrageous that, the editors finally changed the headline – as if, somehow, it softened the ignorant prejudice they were promoting. You’ll find the link here: https://www.frc.org/updatearticle/20200330/blame-throwers
 The actual recommendation was actually far worse in the sense that, this restriction on churches, mosques and synagogues was indefinite. I was invited to meet with the Governor to talk about a safe-reopening of churches. At our first meeting, I told the governor that I would do everything in my power to make this a win for him. Indeed, I told my wife: “I want my Governor to look like a hero when it comes to church.” He told all of us pastors that the opening of churches was “immanent.” Of course, I had no idea that, “immanent” would turn into “indefinite closure.” After numerous meeting, we pushed for an objective metric / date for reopening. We were finally told by our Governor, “Before churches open, I could use three things first: (1). We need to protect hospital workers with Personal Protection equipment. (2). We need to make testing is readily available to our state; & (3). We need to make sure there are enough respirator beds. And so, to be good neighbors, we paid for (and delivered) tens of thousands of Personal Protection gear to hospitals. And thankfully, our state accomplished all of these safety goals. To be honest, after these goals were met, I expected three extremely basic things: (1). Whatever the Governors guidelines, they would be based on science, not politics. (And, I participated in over six proposals to the Governor and his safety commissioner to make sure they had a lot of options.) And (2). I expected that, whatever the “agreed upon science” they would be applied evenly to ALL Minnesotans. And (3). I expected these restrictions to be based on ICU bed availability and respirators – which was the whole pretense for the executive order. Unfortunately, none of these criteria were implemented. After talking dozens of pastors into “honoring our governor” by going all digital for almost 4 months, I now had to explain to angry pastors everywhere why strip clubs and casinos were “Safe” but not churches. I had to explain to my 7th grade son why the “science experts” called this “science.” And worst of all, we were told that, “sometime, maybe in the middle of summer, the Governor might release the worship restrictions to 20 people (as if somehow he was being generous); But it could take several months. And there is no objective metric for when we will decide that you are “safe” – a functional death sentence to about 60% of all religious organizations in Minnesota.
 This last week alone, I had a flurry of mean emails that were all arguing something different: One person said: “I will be so disappointed in you if you dare start physical church in the next 4 months.” Another person said: “I will be so disappointed in you if you don’t defend religious freedom by starting church ASAP.” Ironically, I was accused of being an extreme Democrat and extreme Republican on the same day. Then another person said: “I will be so disappointed if you don’t defend the senior citizens being cast aside by premature reopening.” Still another person said: “More kids die of starvation in a single day of Minnesota non-profits being shut down than will ever die of COVID. I hope that you will boldly stand against these short-sighted Shelter at Home laws.” And then, I get a phone call: “My mother died of COVID-19, could you call me?” Then, I got a phone call: “My family member committed suicide; and, I’m convinced it’s because they couldn’t physically go to church, can we talk?” And my point is this: We need to get outside of our echo-chambers. We need to untie this knot by listening to each other…not accusing each other on social media.
 (Cnaan, 2011) – O’Reilly, David. “What’s a Churches’ economic worth” http://articles.philly.com/2011-02-01/news/27092987_1_partners-for-sacred-places-congregations-churches
 See the research of (Bainbridge 1989), (Fagan 2006).
 (Cnaan, 2011) – O’Reilly, David. “What’s a Churches’ economic worth” see http://articles.philly.com/2011-02-01/news/27092987_1_partners-for-sacred-places-congregations-churches
 M. Baetz, L. Balbuena, R. Bowen; The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Apr. 2013; as quoted by, Graeme Hamilton, “Attendance at Religious Services Lowers risk of depression, study finds” National Post, Oct. 4, 2013; Study followed 12,582 people who were “not clinically depressed” from 1994 until 2008. Researchers commented: “Some ingredient of the religious experience other than behaviours, networks or attitudes alone probably contributes to the benefit.” 80% of those followed came from Christian denominations. Frequency of attendance decreased frequency of depression even well beyond 22%.
 Bainbridge, William Sims. 1989. “The Religious Ecology of Deviance.” American Sociological Review 54: 288-295.
 Freeman, Richard B. 1985. “Who Escapes? The Relation of Churchgoing and Other Background Factors to the Socioeconomic Performance of Black Male Youths from Inner-City Tracts.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 1656.
 Muller, Chandra and Christopher G. Ellison. 2001. “Religious Involvement, Social Capital, and Adolescents’ Academic Progress: Evidence from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988.” Sociological Forces 34: 155-183.
 Regnerus, Mark D. 2000. “Shaping Schooling Success: Religious Socialization and Educational Outcomes in Metropolitan Public Schools.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 39: 363-370. Also see, Regnerus, Mark D. 2001. “Making the Grade: The Influence of Religion Upon the Academic Performance of Youth in Disadvantaged Communities.” University of Pennsylvania, Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society Report No. 3 44: 394-413.
 Johnson, Byron R., Ralph Brett Tompkins, and Derek Webb. 2002. “Objective Hope—Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations: A Systematic Review of the Literature.” Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society.
 L.H. Powell, L.Shahabit, and C.E. Thoresen, “Religion and spirituality: Linkages to physical health,” American Psychologist 58 (2003): 36-52… as quoted in the book: Lonliness: Human Nature and the need for social connection, by John T. Cacioppo (2008) pg.261 “Those who go to church more than once a week enjoy even better health than those who attend only once a week. Overall, the reduction in mortality attributable to churchgoing is twenty-five percent – a huge amount in epidemiological studies.”
 Dr. Robert Hummer argues, “The average religious individual lives seven years longer than the average nonreligious individual, and this increases to fourteen years for African American individuals” – Hummer, Robert A., Richard G. Rogers, Charles B. Nam, and Christopher G. Ellison. 1999. “Religious Involvement and U.S. Adult Mortality.” Demography 36: 273-285. “Research by Johns Hopkins scholars shows that nonreligious individuals have increased risks of dying from cirrhosis of the liver, emphysema, arteriosclerosis, cardiovascular diseases, and suicide” – Comstock, George W. and Kay B. Patridge. 1972. “Church Attendance and Health.” Journal of Religion and Health. 26: 9-35.