How Should Symphonies and Arts Organizations Cope with Coronavirus?

March 11, 2020, 3:58 PM · With the coronavirus causing widespread cancelations of arts events and with some cities canceling any events with more than 1,000 people, it seems inevitable that symphony orchestras and will need to seriously consider what to do in the next few months.

Living in a place where the virus is now spreading in the community (more than 50 people are quarantined in my Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena alone, the city council announced Monday), the current concern is the potential for the cases to overwhelm the health system.

While many people may be young, healthy and not worried about it, there will be a percentage of people who contract the virus who need hospitalization and special care. Consider this: If 300 people have it and 50 need care and nine people die from the disease, that is one set of numbers. But if 30,000 people have it all at once, 5,000 suddenly need special care, 900 die from the disease - you see the problem. So slowing the spread of the virus has become a major priority, so that the cases don't overwhelm the medical system.

Also, yes, "I'm not worried about getting it" - many people don't see it as a personal threat. But anyone can have it for five days without symptoms; for some people, the virus can run its full course with minimal symptoms. Considering this, it is very possible to GIVE it to someone who could be more vulnerable than you.

Which brings me to a scenario where this could happen: when you crowd together a large group of elderly people mixed with younger people.

As of writing this, I've received a number of notices from symphonies in the Los Angeles area; so far they are not canceling concerts, but they are encouraging sick people to stay home, providing hand sanitizer, doing an extra cleaning of the venue and scanning tickets instead of handling them.

But in some areas, musical organizations have been required to take more drastic measures due to coronavirus concerns, and that too could spread.


For example, the San Francisco Symphony canceled all performances this week and next, as the city has closed its venue. Itzhak Perlman's concert tonight at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was canceled because of travel concerns for the artist. The Juilliard School suspended all in-person classes and activities and transitioned to remote learning through March 29. The New England Conservatory has closed its campus to the public until May 1, including Jordan Hall, thereby canceling any programs that were scheduled there, including Boston Baroque. Some cities are simply banning gatherings of more than 1,000 people. Soloists have cut short tours. Classes at universities and music schools across the country have transitioned to online learning.

The list is growing by the minute.

What can we do?

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March 11, 2020 at 09:29 PM · This is a good question. It's going to be difficult for everyone, but we should all try our best to thrive, even if we're worried. I think the idea of streaming symphony concerts online is a great idea. It's just a matter of making sure the sound quality is good and all.

March 11, 2020 at 10:47 PM · My husband and I have tickets to see Joshua Bell @ NY Phil in a few weeks as well as tickets to see Itzhak Perlman @ Tilles Center that same week. Although I work with the public every day, being in a large auditorium with so many people gives me pause. I just called NY Phil and so far it's business as usual, although the customer service rep said that could change at any time. I hope to speak with a rep at Tilles Center tomorrow. We bought these tickets ages ago and would never have guessed that a virus might prevent us from attending. Very good article...timely and well-written.

March 11, 2020 at 11:52 PM · Actually the Atlanta symphony concert was not cancelled ( i am waiting for it to start) as pinchas Zukerman has filled in.

March 12, 2020 at 01:02 AM · We're beginning to see over-reaction and public hysteria all over, tx to media and social networks. There isn't a single confirmed case of COVID on Canada's Vancouver Island, yet some relatively small public events are getting cancelled just in case! Sure from a public health perspective you can't be wrong, but the impact of the perceived threat, real or not, is in itself devastating. The stock markets are imploding from a handful of people getting a flu so far less lethal overall than the common flu, but potentially, and this is the key word, potentially, far worse. Not to understate the health crisis brought by COVID, there are good reasons to fight this virus's spread, but 10 months from now COVID will be just another virus in our environment. Where is SARS? Technically far more lethal than COVID, still out there, but who cares. My community orchestra isn't considering cancellation of our up-coming concert unless otherwise directed by local health authorities. We should take basic preventive measures, and so are those attending the concert, but we're still very far from a total close-down.

March 12, 2020 at 03:41 AM · They actually beat back SARS, it's not running rampant.

March 12, 2020 at 06:23 AM · I know quite a few concerts have been cancelled in the Bay Area. I'm surprised it hasn't started yet in LA.

March 12, 2020 at 07:57 AM · Twenty days ago I attended a music festival in Bellevue, Washington. I spent two nights at a friends house in the city just north of Bellevue, in Kirkland, Washington. The festival was delightful with hundreds of people attending, and dozens of musical acts performing for packed rooms of two to three hundred people. Nineteen days ago I left Kirkland and took a train back to Portland. Six days later the first coronavirus death was reported in a nursing home in Kirkland. Since then, 374 cases have been reported state wide, with 237 cases in King county , including 27 deaths in that county. All of this happened in less than three weeks since I left Kirkland, with the deaths have all happened in the past 13 days. Here in Oregon we now have 20 known cases when just 14 days ago none were reported. Since coming back from Kirkland, my health is fine, but as I near 71, I am taking precautions as everyone else should. As you know, testing for this virus has been difficult due to some governmental foot dragging, and we don't really have an idea how many cases of this disease exist. Why take all of this so seriously? Because there is no cure. There is no vaccine. There is no roadmap, seasonal pattern, or much else for us to use to fight this pandemic. These numbers are mushrooming daily. Sporting events, schools, arts organizations, political rallies, and all other large group events need to step back and postpone their events. Not to do so is irresponsible. Bite the bullet because like it or not, this is a game changer. Calling something public hysteria when you can look at it from a distance is an easily dismissive point of view. However, when you've been close to it, when you'd like to have a rewind on the past three weeks so things could be different, suddenly it becomes very real, and frankly, it is very real. It is mushrooming on a daily basis, and beyond avoiding contact with a lot of people, and focusing on sanitation, there is little we can do. I'd much rather have someone cancel an event rather than take the chance that people could become fatally ill. Of course, personal responsibility needs to be brought to the entire issue. Why go if there is a risk of a fatal virus? Do you really want to do that to yourself? If the music festival I attended were scheduled for this weekend as opposed to three weeks ago, I'm certain they would have canceled. I"m also certain I would have stayed home that weekend. As it was, it was right in a hot spot of this virus, and only time will tell what may happen next. Hopefully, nothing, but at this point, none of us can make that call.

March 12, 2020 at 10:23 AM · Currently 1 in 3900 persons worldwide is or has been infected. Almost all make a full recovery. Those most at risk should take precautions. The rest of us should be considerate. But I am going to guess that in a few months or years we will learn that our extreme risk mitigation caused more harm, possibly even death, than the disease itself.

March 12, 2020 at 12:47 PM · While I can see that extreme mitigation will result in economic harm, how would it cause death?

We have only two confirmed cases in the state of Michigan, yet all public universities will be switching to on-line classes, and many public events have been canceled or postponed. While this may seem extreme, isn't it better to close the barn door BEFORE the horses get out?

By the way, both of these people in Michigan are hospitalized, and both are middle-aged, not elderly.

March 12, 2020 at 02:14 PM · My nine year old student watched as I wiped down light switches and door knobs from the public music studio I taught at before her lesson. She told me that she didn't care about the virus because she probably wouldn't get sick. I've heard this too much. I didn't try to put fear into her, but told her there is sickness going around and this is how we can help stay clean. On the other hand, I have a husband who is high risk with pre existing lung problems, so I don't want to be bringing the virus home to him. Those that I talk to that are under 50 don't seem to think that we really have a crisis. "It's only old people with health priblems that are affected". It's a very selfish mentality to have. A lot of people seem to think that because they aren't in the high risk group, they can fo ahead spread germs around to the valuable human beings that are high risk. I hate this "all about me" mentality and it's "only a problem if I'm directly impacted". We're starting to see the result of that mentality.

March 12, 2020 at 03:40 PM · Dimitri Musafia is welcome to correct me if I am mistaken, but what I've heard from acquaintances in Italy is that the issue there blossomed because initial warnings were not taken seriously enough. Now, the entire country is in a semi-lockdown state, with 12 thousand confirmed cases, and 800 deaths.

March 12, 2020 at 04:08 PM · "Currently 1 in 3900 persons worldwide is or has been infected."

That would be 1.8 million people. Not even close, total number of person infected worldwide is less than 120,000 including 4292 death according to WHO. That is slightly above the average number of yearly death from the common flu (0.1% of infected people) in Canada alone. That said, would the numbers of COVID infected people equal that from the common flu, the number of death (2% of infected people) could be an order of magnitude higher. That is why the prevention of its spread is so important.

March 12, 2020 at 05:11 PM · It's really different for an individual and for an organization. Think about your audience at the symphony, and think about your responsibility to this highest risk segment of society if you are the one making the decision on whether to have or cancel events.

I am on my church council, and it's something we are taking seriously, since the demographic at my church is pretty close to the demographic of the symphony audience - I've known a good deal of these people my entire life, and I would really struggle with knowing I could have done something to prevent someone's illness or death, because I was too concerned with my own sense of normalcy - I'm 32, and not particularly worried for myself, but I have to start thinking about all the people I interact with. I also work in a big office. Me the individual doesn't much care, but as a member of society, I have to think differently.

I actually just bought tickets to see Garrick Ohlsson play with the Colorado Symphony in three weeks - I really do wonder if that concert is going to happen. Fantastic pianist, btw.

March 12, 2020 at 05:20 PM · @David, in my opinion the Italian goverment has done a better job then most. As of last night, the whole country is shut down, after a request of the Governor of Lombardy and the mayors of all 12 province-heading cities.

You can't find something if you don't look for it. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 was in a patient in the town of Codogno, and the doctor who examined the patient decided to look deeper into what appear to be simple flu.

Many experts already agree that the contagion in the U.S. is far beyond what is being admitted by the government. If you don't test, you don't find.

For the record, the Italian infection came from a German citizen, who had met first with a Chinese manager (subsequently tested positive), and then had relations in Italy. So this is truly a global issue, no blame for any population. We're in it together.

Now in all of Italy the word is: stay home. I suggest the same to all. Make a vacation out of it!

March 12, 2020 at 06:35 PM · The testing is very scarce here, and the reporting on the testing is hard to find. It's not even clear if the tests we're using in the U.S. are on par with the WHO tests. But beyond that, we're just not testing very many people, and I think the uncertainty is causing even more problems. Not everyone is fooled by "Wow, there are just so few cases!" when we see the obvious lack of testing.

March 12, 2020 at 06:56 PM · Dimitri wrote:

"Many experts already agree that the contagion in the U.S. is far beyond what is being admitted by the government. If you don't test, you don't find."


Yes, the true scope of Coronavirus infection in the US is largely unknown. I in no way intended to bash Italy's handling of the situation, but was more suggesting that we could all learn from those who have more experience with this illness than we do, like those in Italy.

March 12, 2020 at 08:07 PM · Those that are being tested are only the very sick and those who may have reason to beleive they could have been exposed (mostly travelers and in contact with travelers). That in itself is bound to grossely under estimate the degree of local contagion since if you don't meet those criteria and have flu symptoms will be assumed to have the common flu and won't be tested. As Dimitri said, if you don't test, you don't know, hence the low number of random infections detected. In other words the only way to know would be systematic testing, which is not feasible.

It is a hard call to cancel a public event. There is a fine balance between "public responsibility" and personal freedom of choice/responsibility. Because a concert is happening does not mean I have to attend if I feel I shouldn't and this is my personal responsibility. An orchestra has legal responsibilities to its players' well being and that could be enough to justify a cancellation. I am not so sure if the same degree of legal responsibility extend to the greater audience for things that are beyond the orchestra's control. There is perhaps a degree of social responsibility, but would it go so far as to accusations of irresponsibility if an orchestra chooses to play a concert? If public authorities call for a ban on public events then the decision is easy. Many times however the decision will be financial rather than social consciousness.

March 13, 2020 at 12:06 AM · Roger St. Pierre you are correct. My iOS calculator ran out of zeros. It is more like 1 in 55,000. Less scary than I thought and I am not scared.

March 13, 2020 at 12:59 AM · Right on! Ignore everything I said earlier. I ain't scared o' nothin'. ;;-)

March 14, 2020 at 05:00 PM · This is no worst than the flu! Get a grip people we are all not going to die. Do not cancel concerts but you can cancel sporting events only because I think professional sports are dumb.

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