U of U engineers conduct study to help stop the spread of airflow between musicians

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Courtesy: University of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) — The coronavirus pandemic or COVID-19 is a virus believed to spread from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, or even when playing an instrument.

The droplets can land in the mouths or noses of those around you or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

In the era of this global pandemic, symphony orchestras, like many performers around Utah are concerned that live performances could prove to be risky not only for audience members but also nearby musicians.

According to the University of Utah College of Engineering, while string musicians can wear protective face masks, those who play wind and brass instruments and have to use their mouths risk creating airflow around them.

Due to the potential spreading of COVID-19, U of U chemical engineering researchers were hired by leadership at Utah Symphony and Utah Opera to conduct a series of airflow studies inside Abravanel Hall.

Chemical engineering professor James Sutherland, assistant professor Tony Saad and a team of students spent July and August investigating the potential risk by measuring the flow rates through the air vents of the building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system, HVAC.

Using high-powered computers, the two professors developed simulations of how the air flows through the stage and developed a computer model to show how wind instruments, like trumpets, flutes, oboes, and clarinets, interacted with the airflow from the HVAC system.

According to the University of Utah College of Engineering, the simulation show them what instruments were problematic, they would move the musician around and preform another simulation until every musician was in a different spot to maximize airflow.

The following was released in a press release form the University of Utah College of Engineering:

David Green, senior vice president, and chief operating officer for Utah Symphony and Utah Opera, says the orchestra will be utilizing variations of these recommendations and those from epidemiologists depending on each performance.

“The engineers helped us to achieve the data we wanted, and we paired that with the medical science,” Green said. “We now know what’s going on onstage with the airflow, and we know how to react in any given configuration. It’s been a godsend for us, and it helps not only our staff and musicians but the audience.”

In addition to following the recommendations from the study, the symphony says they will also include reducing capacity to around 15 percent of the hall, seat guests in every third row, and keep six feet of distance between separate households. All patrons will be requires to wear face coverings at all times while inside performance venues and programs will also be shorter in length without intermissions.

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