Few activities spread COVID-19 as effectively as singing. It’s why choirs around the country have been practicing over Zoom or in parking lots for more than a year now. But as more people are vaccinated against, many choirs are eyeing a return to in-person singing.
For the Skagit Valley Chorale in northwest Washington state, the return has highlighted a philosophical split within the group.
The choir experienced one of the first and most famous superspreader events in the country, at a rehearsal on March 10, 2020.
“All the schools were open, all the libraries were open, all the stores were open. Everything was open on the day of our last rehearsal,” says Ruth Backlund, an alto and one of the group’s co-presidents.
Until a few hours before the rehearsal, there were no known COVID-19 cases in the area. The Skagit Valley is an hour north of Seattle. It’s an agricultural hub, famous for its spring Tulip festival.
“It was just general consensus that if you observed social distancing and washed your hands you’d be fine,” Backlund says. “And so we did that. To the extreme we did that.”
The choir encouraged people who were worried about getting sick to stay home. But for those who did attend the rehearsal, the leaders loaded up on hand sanitizer and had members spread out as far as possible in their practice hall at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church.
Sixty-one people came to rehearsal. Within a few weeks, 52 were diagnosed with COVID-19. Several people were hospitalized, and two of the choir members died.
“This particular incident was one of the first strong pieces of evidence that there could be airborne transmission [of COVID-19],” says Dr. Lea Hamner, the head infectious disease at Skagit County Public Health.
If COVID-19 wasn’t spreading through the air, she says, “it just seems mathematically impossible — after you stare at it for a long time and wrestle with it — that you would have 52 people get sick all at once.”
The superspreader event marked a turning point in scientists’ understanding of the disease.
Today, the Skagit Valley Chorale is holding its weekly rehearsals over Zoom, but the group is planning a return to in-person rehearsals this fall. Their impending reunion has sparked conflict between the singers over a vaccine requirement.
“I had several people say I’m not going back until I see a vaccination card for everybody else that’s singing in that room with me,” Backlund says.
One singer in favor of everyone being vaccinated is Nina Tallering, a soprano. She sings in the choir with her mom, and her parents both came down with COVID-19 during the outbreak.
“Unless there’s a medical reason that they can’t do it, I hope that people would really think of it as a kindness to the people around them and protecting the group as a whole,” Tallering says.
But she adds, politics is getting in the way of the group coming to a consensus.
“It’s hard for me that this has become a political issue, on some levels. And that we’re not trusting in experts. And we’re not trusting in science always.”
Other singers are opposed to a mandate, or opposed to getting a vaccine themselves.
One is Carolynn Comstock, a soprano and the group’s second co-president.
“I got all my kids their vaccines. I’m a believer in vaccines for all those things,” Comstock says. “But I had COVID, and I got a pretty good case of it. And as far as I’m concerned, I don’t need a vaccine.”
The CDC does recommend getting a COVID-19 vaccine even for those who have had the disease.
Comstock believes it should be a personal choice, and says she’s confident in the science that shows people have an immune response after getting infected.
“That may mean that the Skagit Valley Chorale decides that I don’t get to sing with them, ” she says. “I’m a president but I only get one vote.”
But if the group decides not to require vaccines, other singers say they will feel forced to leave.
It’s unclear what choice the choir will make, but Backlund says she’s hopeful their love of singing will keep them together.
“The thing that’s nice about singing is you’re brought right back together like magnets,” she says. “And it doesn’t really matter how you feel politically. How I feel politically. If our voices blend it doesn’t matter, does it?”