GOOD PRACTICE GUIDE Allowing theatres to breathe again

Philip Dowds is the founder and director of OKTO Technologies and OKTOair that specialise in smart buildings and air cleaning technology. Here he explains how theatres and concert halls can quickly be made safe again


Theatres, always such a live part of our lives, were brought to a standstill as a result of the pandemic which has had a terrible impact on the arts industry. But with restrictions easing there is a new hope for theatres and concert halls as they return after an 18-month break.

Main image of an empty Leeds Playhouse courtesy of WhatsOnStage

However, this return is being confronted by significant challenges. Many venues are unable to operate at full capacity, and ticket sales are low because people may still be too cautious to attend - particularly in poorly ventilated buildings with crowds.

Recently a Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre survey revealed that 96% of surveyed theatre organisations in the UK reported being worse off because of the impact of the pandemic. Those with roles within the theatre have been unable to work and many highly talented performers have had to seek alternative work outside the industry. After a crippling year for theatres and concert halls their reopening has been an enticing prospect when support for the industry is more vital than ever before, but the risk of crowds in unventilated spaces may mean those wanting to attend are hesitating, and despite the lifting of restrictions their continued absence could contribute to a further decline for live events.

Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on the importance of air quality and ventilation, and the harmful impacts this may have upon public health. The British Medical Journal showed findings of how SARS-CoV-2 particles behave indoors. While particles are most concentrated at short range distances (<1m), particles dispersed over longer distances (>2m) can remain in the air for hours, creating risks. Indoor areas with inadequate ventilation pose the greatest hazard of particle transmission, and this has become a contributing factor in indoor venues, such as theatres and concert halls, having to stay closed for such a long period because clean indoor air is essential in minimising the spread of disease.

And leading European indoor environmental quality associations have issued a statement this month to assert the dangers of indoor air pollution, calling for the poor air quality of indoor environments to be recognised as a health risk.

Lack of regulation in this area is allowing Covid-19 and other airborne viruses to spread, impacting the health and safety of all those attending or working at concerts and theatre productions. Adequate ventilation is therefore vital to enable safety indoors and to navigate the challenges the pandemic is bringing.

There is a huge need for venue providers to give audiences the confidence that they will be safe when at a performance. Clean indoor air is necessary for safety and to prevent the spread of diseases; but without ventilation this is hard to achieve and as a result theatres and concert halls have lower attendance. The Building Engineering Services Association are calling for an overhaul of building ventilation standards   in order to make buildings safer to use. An opportunity is presented for theatres and concert halls to future-proof venues to ensure the highest levels of safety and to reassure audiences. Innovative technologies such as air quality monitoring and management systems to monitor and control the air, removing pollutants in real time, can be valuable in addressing indoor air pollution risks.

As clean air technology experts, we recognise the importance of workforce and client welfare. Technologies such as ours that combine HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filtering with advanced DFS (disinfecting filtration system) technology can permanently remove ultra-fine particles from any space. Innovations such as instant monitoring and reporting can also bring significant improvements to the indoor air quality, by providing managers with accurate data and controls to kill pollutants. OKTOair can disinfect the air in spaces, ranging from 500 to one million square feet without using any chemicals or ozone, solutions that go above and beyond the European Guidelines EN 1822.

Polluted air poses dangers that aren't limited to the pandemic. Pollutants found in unclear air can have serious long-term health implications. Innovative clean air technologies can also improve the health of staff, theatre and concert-goers in the long-term and are an investment for the future. Indoor air can be between two and ten times more polluted than outdoor air, but the truth is that the role indoor air plays in harming people’s health has been overlooked. People working in dirty air may be more susceptible to conditions such as asthma, COPD (emphysema), anxiety and depression, and these health effects cannot be ignored.

Through the use of clean air and wellness technologies that reduce indoor air pollution important health benefits can be enjoyed, shaping a healthier and happier future for venue staff, managers and performers who work predominately within an indoor environment. Significantly, ensuring the solutions to providing clean air are chemical and ozone free guarantees that negative impacts on people’s long-term health are not just reduced but also improving the environment, with a sustainable and efficient solution.

Preserving the wonderful tradition of the theatre through embracing new innovative technologies can instil confidence in the public to return to theatres and concert halls at a time where their support is most important.

The arts have faced their most challenging period as a result of the pandemic, but putting effort into improving the wellbeing of theatre and concert hall audiences, staff and performers will enable this industry to welcome back its supporters safely and give them carefree entertainment once again.

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