We’re asked when we’ll resume in-person retreats. We’d love to say “Now!”
But what many people don’t know is that an in-person retreat is a super-spreader for COVID-19, worse than most other known super-spreading venues like concerts, conventions, and choir practices.
Spending 18 or more hours in an intensive retreat in a room, together, unmasked, and talking, makes the transmission of this virus a certainty.
We know that people have various beliefs and attitudes toward this pandemic. Given our scientific background, we closely follow research on COVID-19 and take science-informed attitudes about conducting retreats during these times.
Initial Theories on How the Virus Spread
Most of us have heard that the Coronavirus is potentially spread if we are close to an infected person who coughs or sneezes, especially in our direction. The large droplets emitted will travel at high speeds and carry large dosages of the virus.
We could 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 could further spread the virus.
We also know we could become infected if our hands picked up such large droplets and then we touched our mouth, nose, or eyes. Our hands could additionally pick up droplets from a surface, although that is currently becoming seen as less probable.
Thus the initial precautions to prevent spreading COVID-19 included: wearing a mask, frequently washing our hands, not touching our face, being wary of surfaces, and socially distancing at least six feet away from others, especially when face-to-face.
Current Model of Aerosol Transmission
What is more clear now is that COVID-19 mainly spreads through the much smaller micro-droplets that are continually emitted as people normally breathe and talk.
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. This virus also spreads via these tiny droplets getting into one’s mouth, nose, or eyes.
As the large droplets produced by coughing and sneezing are heavier, they fall to the floor or ground relatively quickly. But the smaller, lighter droplets hover in the air for a much longer time (like cigarette smoke) and thereby easily spread to fill a room.
Airborne transmission by the smaller micro-droplets explains how people got infected that the larger droplet model did not. It explains how asymptomatic people, who do not sneeze or cough, so easily infect others around them, even those who otherwise maintain social distance, wash their hands, and avoid touching their 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.
Whether carried aloft by large droplets that zoom through the air after a sneeze, or by much smaller exhaled droplets that may glide the length of a room, the Coronavirus is primarily borne through the air and can infect people when inhaled.
However, the micro-droplets do carry smaller doses of the virus, in terms of the number of virions conveyed by each droplet. Hence the other factor involved in COVID transmission is the time duration we 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 micro-droplet, with each breath you take in more.
So the longer you are in the room with an infected person, the more breaths you take, and the larger sum total number of virions you have taken 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 spend 15 minutes talking with that person, the probability is higher. If you are indoors and unmasked, the probability gets much higher.
The longer the duration you stay in a room, breathing and talking, the more virions will enter and accumulate in your system. That is just basic math.
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.
What about Wearing Masks?
Masks help keep us from spreading the virus outward, and they are somewhat, but less, effective at preventing us from catching it.
However, wearing a mask in an in-person retreat would also impede the effectiveness of the retreat process 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.
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 if one 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.”
Thus, given that we’re informed by science and honor the oath of healers, as much as we love to do retreats in person, it looks like it will be quite a while before the pandemic ends and we can again conduct in-person retreats.
Meanwhile, know this. It is just a myth that meeting in-person is more effective than virtual work. Based on our experience since early March, we have consistently found that our Zoom retreats are just as effective as meeting in person.
Some 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. It is as effective via Zoom as it is in person.