With a spotlight on safety, members of the Skagit Valley Chorale are together again.
For many of them, this is the first time they have been together since March 2020, when the singing group became an early case study in the dangers of COVID-19.
The group, led for the past eight years by Director Adam Burdick, has been eager to perform together again, and has been carefully evaluating what a safe practice would look like.
“It’s a meaningful thing to them,” Burdick said. “I know a lot of them look forward to Tuesday as a special time in their week.”
Outdoor rehearsals started in early October at the covered sports court at Centennial Elementary School in Mount Vernon, and only came after extensive discussion on COVID-19 safety.
“Our choir has a responsibility to be really, really careful after our history,” Burdick said.
On March 10, 2020, a rehearsal became one of the first documented COVID-19 super-spreader events in the country. Among the 61 people who attended that practice, 53 developed COVID-19 symptoms and two died.
Burdick said the outbreak and the attention that followed still hang over the group, and influence every decision its governing board makes.
Though the group faced a great deal of criticism over the outbreak, Burdick said what’s often overlooked is how little was known about COVID-19 at the onset of the pandemic.
“It wasn’t our fault, but there was enough of that hate directed at us that it was getting really hard,” he said.
Burdick said that when it came to in-person practices again, every decision was mulled over carefully.
Masks and vaccines are required to participate in the outdoor rehearsals, even though that has meant some members chose not to return, he said.
Burdick said the group has gone beyond what’s required for COVID-19 safety, precisely because its members couldn’t bear being the source of another outbreak.
“We choose not to be defined as the infamous choir from Washington state, even though that’s how you can find us on the internet,” he said.
For Debbie Amos, one of the group’s board members, the return of Tuesday rehearsals has been something to celebrate.
“It just felt liberating and victorious,” she said.
She said after more than a year and a half apart, it feels as if the group is showing it won’t be beaten by the virus.
During the pandemic, members recorded and edited a handful of songs together remotely, but she said creating choral music over Zoom isn’t the same as doing it in person.
“It’s frustrating,” Amos said. “You don’t get that sense of camaraderie and making music together.”
Still, the open-air rehearsal space is far from ideal, and Amos said she’s hopeful the group can soon get back to indoor practices.
Though attendance fluctuates, at its largest the group has about 120 members. At these outdoor practice sessions, held so far on brisk, windy Tuesday evenings, 35 to 50 have showed up.
Burdick is hopeful the group will be able to practice indoors by November, saying weather, technical difficulties and the COVID-19 precautions being taken add up to a challenging situation.
Aside from masks blocking members’ mouths, cold and windy weather has chilled Burdick to the point that at times he hasn’t been able to feel the keys on the piano. And at times, the sound of rain hitting the roof of the covered practice space was all he could hear, he said.
“It was one of the most difficult rehearsals I’ve ever done,” he said. “We won’t be able to put up with this for too long.”
Jean Markus, a founding member of the group, said it’s heartwarming to see her friends overcome these challenges.
“Just the fact that there’s 40 people willing to work this hard is a testament to everyone’s perseverance,” she said.