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Maine CDC, Star Parties, and Covid-19

Maine Center for Disease Control has asked CMAS to match what is requested of astronomy clubs, planetariums, and observatories nationwide, by continuing to not host its traditional star parties, due to the risks inherent when people share eyepieces. I call CDC occasionally, to stay up-to-date and to separate any personal concerns I may have about the Coronavirus pandemic from the objective expertise that best serves decisions affecting the club and its guests. Avoiding traditional star parties may sound odd at a time when Maine is among the safest states in the country for avoiding Covid-19, and schools statewide are opening. The short answer is that star parties are likely to become super-spreading events, as occurred with the recent wedding reception in Millinocket that spread Covid-19 to dozens of guests, who then spread it to dozens of others after they returned home, igniting two more outbreaks in which one person died of Covid-19.

At star parties, we don’t hug and kiss the way people do at wedding receptions, so how could these two gatherings be alike? Maine CDC says the answer is that sharing eyepieces is an unexpectedly perfect means for transmitting the virus. No one has to appear or feel sick for this to occur. Many asymptomatic people are contagious. Bringing an eyeball to an eyepiece deposits virus on the eyepiece from the observer’s breath. Direct contact with the eyepiece then transfers the virus into the eyes of everyone else who uses that eyepiece. This occurs whether by the design of an eyepiece requiring close contact with the eye, or by accident in the dark. CDC warns that trying to sanitize the eyepiece between observers will not make sharing eyepieces safer, because the virus is so highly contagious that sanitizing is difficult even under laboratory conditions in daylight, let alone in the field in the dark.

I will be calling Maine CDC again this week, and will report any changes, yet I suspect that the request not to host star parties may be with us for a while. There are just too many complications in managing the State’s distancing guidelines in the dark while assuring that everyone agrees not to share eyepieces, during parties that have always involved close mingling and shared observations. No one wants to see a star party become a super-spreading event, or lead to another death. Frustrating, but the pandemic will not last forever. Doubly frustrating, because although everyone knows the requirements set for restaurants and retailers, Maine CDC’s request to observatories and astronomy clubs does not appear on the evening news, and so may come across as a surprise exception.

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