We’re often asked when we’ll resume in-person retreats. We’d love to say “Now!”
But people don’t realize that an in-person retreat is a super-spreader event for COVID-19, far worse than other super-spreader venues like concerts, bars, clubs, weddings, funerals, cruise ships, or nursing homes.
Spending the 18 or more hours of an intensive retreat in a room together, unmasked and talking, makes the transmission of the virus a certainty.
I know there are different beliefs about COVID-19. As a Stanford-trained scientist I follow current studies on COVID-19. Like I work with couples using a time-tested, evidence-based approach, I also take a scientific stance about conducting retreats at this time.
Initial Theories on How the Virus Spread
Most of us realize that the Coronavirus can be spread if we are close to an infected person who coughs or sneezes in our direction. Large droplets are emitted that travel at high speeds and carry high dosages of the virus.
We may become infected if any such large droplets enter our mouth, nose, or eyes, and carry enough viral dosage (virions). If infected, we may or may not show symptoms for up to a week or two. Even if not symptomatic, we would further spread the virus.
We also know we become infected if such large droplets landed on our hands and then we touched our mouth, nose, or eyes. Our hands could also pick up droplets from a surface, although that now is seen as less likely of a factor.
Thus the initial precautions to prevent spreading COVID-19 included: wearing a mask, not touching our face, monitoring surfaces, frequently washing our hands, and socially distancing at least six feet away from others, especially when face-to-face.
Current Model of Aerosol Transmission
What is clear now is that COVID-19 mainly spreads through much smaller droplets that are continually emitted as aerosols from normal breathing and talking.
Studies show these tiny droplets accumulate and stay suspended in the air for up to 16 hours indoors, and can infect anyone in that room regardless of social distance.
As ordinary breathing and talking produce small droplets that linger in the air for long periods of time and travel over great distances, ultimately filling a room, COVID-19 gets transmitted via these tiny droplets getting into one’s mouth, nose, or eyes.
It’s like smoking. If you are in the same room as a smoker, you soon smell it. The same airborne mechanics deliver into your nose and lungs these tiny suspended droplets carrying the COVID-19 virus. And with every breath you get more.
The large droplets produced by coughing and sneezing are heavier and fall to the ground relatively fast. But these smaller, lighter droplets hover in the air for a much longer time and thereby do spread to fill a room, and can even remain suspended for 2-3 days.
Airborne transmission by the smaller droplets explains how people got infected that the larger droplet and surface contamination model did not. It explains how asymptomatic people, who do not sneeze or cough, so easily infect others around them, even those who maintain social distance, wash hands, and avoid touching faces.
It explains how rooms full of people, such as in choir practice, become infected even though they did not come within the six feet of an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. It explains why infections so often cluster in nursing homes, households, conferences, concerts, cruise ships, and other indoor spaces.
Sadly, it also explains why re-opening a region before COVID-19 has been sufficiently contained, results in a rapid increase in new infections, especially as people congregate in indoor spaces unmasked, such as in bars, parties, and restaurants.
Whether carried aloft by large droplets that zoom through the air after a sneeze, or by much smaller exhaled droplets that glide and accumulate throughout a room, the Coronavirus is primarily borne through the air and can infect people when inhaled.
However, the tiny droplets do carry smaller doses of the virus, in terms of the number of virions conveyed by each droplet. Hence the other significant factor involved in COVID transmission is the time duration people are exposed to it.
Probability of Transmission Increases with Time
The probability of catching the virus is directly proportional to the length of time you’re exposed to it. While a smaller dosage of virions is contained in each tiny droplet, with each breath you take in more.
Compounding this, with each breath of the infected person, more tiny droplets are sprayed out into the room to produce a denser accumulated cloud of virions.
So the longer you are in the room with an infected person, the more breaths you each take, and the larger sum total number of virions you will ingest into your body.
If you quickly walk by someone infected, the probability that you will take in enough virions to seriously infect you is very low. If you stop and spend 15 minutes talking with that person, the probability is higher. If you are indoors and unmasked for that 15 minutes, the probability grows much higher.
The longer the duration you stay in a room, breathing and talking, the more virions will enter and accumulate in your system. There is no getting around that basic math. The more breaths you take, the more virions you ingest.
Take the choir practice case. 61 singers were in a large room with 1 asymptomatic infected person for 2.5 hours. Despite social distancing, handwashing, not touching surfaces or sharing food, 52 got infected. 3 were hospitalized. 2 died.
In an intensive retreat, you’re in a smaller room for ten times that long (18 to 24 hours). The math is straightforward. Everyone in the retreat room will become significantly infected if anyone is an asymptomatic carrier.
For more information on aerosol transmission of COVID-19 that is pertinent to one’s general safety, see an article in Massachusetts Institute of Technology Review.
What about Wearing Masks?
Masks help keep us from spreading the virus if we are infected. They are somewhat, but less, effective at preventing us from catching it.
Given the number of breaths everyone takes during 18 to 24 hours in a retreat, and that masks are not 100% effective, the math still adds up to certainty of transmission.
But even if masks were effective at blocking viral transmission, wearing a mask during an in-person retreat would also block the effectiveness of the retreat itself.
A big part of a retreat is about lowering one’s defenses and engaging in emotional repair and reconnection. It’s about coming to feel it’s easy to just be more yourselves with each other. That’s the opposite of being masked.
It’s actually “un-masking” if you will. And if you think that is just a metaphor, consider that a mask hides 50% of facial cues that are vital in reading each other emotionally, including being read accurately by us.
On that score alone, you would be far better off doing a virtual retreat without masks than an in-person retreat where all of us were wearing masks. Never mind the plexiglass panels, shields, and face-guards!
Why an In-Person Retreat Is a Super-Spreader
All things considered, what makes it so highly probable that an in-person intensive retreat will spread COVID-19 is the length of time we’re in the room together, unmasked, talking, and just breathing.
Health officials, when doing contact tracing, look for anyone an infected person has been in contact with for as little as 15 minutes. An intensive retreat is 70 to 100 times that length of time! Unmasked. Indoors.
Over the 18 or more hours of a retreat program, the virus will certainly spread to everyone in the room. Of course, if any of us had symptoms of COVID-19, we would delay the retreat. The problem is the more likely case that one of us is asymptomatic.
There’s no practical way we could know if one of us had recently become infected. Maybe you got it traveling, on the plane, dining out, where you’re staying. Or maybe we got it from our previous clients and are not yet symptomatic.
Two days before symptoms appear is a peak time period for transmitting this virus. And since whoever had it would be asymptomatic, it might be a week or two before the rest of us get symptoms and realize we were infected and spreading it still further.
When Will We Offer In-Person Retreats?
An in-person retreat center like ours is highly susceptible to this virus. It’d only be a matter of time before it arrived. While asymptomatic, we would then infect still more couples.
Some of our clients are very vulnerable to this disease. And playing any part in spreading COVID-19 goes against the oath of a healing professional: “First, do no harm.”
We could not claim to be healers with any integrity if we ignored this. Thus, as science is integral to our approach to helping couples, as much as we love to work in person, it will be a while before we can again conduct in-person retreats.
Meanwhile, know that it is just a myth that meeting in-person is better. Based on our experience since early March, we have consistently found that our Zoom retreats are at least as effective as meeting in person. And sometimes more so!
Yes, couples have told us their virtual retreats turned out to be even more effective than in-person would have been. See feedback from our virtual retreat clients.
As a pioneer of the intensive private marriage retreat format, we have been conducting retreats for three decades. We have developed a best-in-class approach to working with couples. We can be as effective via Zoom as in person.