Government Introduces Covid Noise Limit For Most Hospitality Venues
The hospitality sector has had new temporary regulations imposed on it, in a bid to limit the spread of Covid-19. The amendment to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Obligations of Undertakings) (England) Regulations 2020 introduces a new Covid noise limit of 85 dB (A-weighted) for any music played in cafes, bars and restaurants including a bar in a hotel or members’ club and came into force on 28th September, and is enforceable by law. In this article, Teli Chinelis discusses the new Covid noise limit for hospitality venues and how this might affect business owners.
(1C) A person responsible for carrying on a business of a public house, café, restaurant or bar (including a bar in a hotel or members’ club) must, during the emergency period, ensure that no music is played on the premises which exceeds 85db(A) [sic dB] when measured at the source of the music.
Advice on keeping noise levels as low as possible was introduced when the UK’s Coronavirus lockdown restrictions began to ease back in July. This new amendment to the law makes the Covid noise limit of 85 dB a legal obligation rather than a recommendation, meaning premises that don’t comply could be hit with a fine of up to £10,000.
This new legislation only applies to pre-recorded music and live performances are exempt.
What this means for those working in the hospitality sector is that they should conduct regular noise level checks in areas where music is played back to ensure that they are not in breach of these new restrictions, and ensure they are Covid-secure.
However, these hastily produced Regulations do not stipulate how these measurements ought to be undertaken, or even the noise parameter that has to be used and the specified measurement location. “At the source of the music” is ambiguous. Does it imply that the measurement ought to be right next to the loudspeaker (mm’s away) or at some distance away, and if so at what distance? There is an acoustic industry convention that measurements are undertaken at a distance of 1 metre (from the source of the noise when dealing with small items of plant) and perhaps this may be one of the assumptions that is required in this instance. Another assumption is that this limit refers to the sound level of the music playback and not the sound level of the music playback plus the ambient noise in the venue (i.e. from conversing patrons).
It is understood that the purpose of the music level limit is to mitigate the increased risk of virus transmission associated with aerosol production from raised voices. A normal voice level typically produces an LAeq of around 60 dB at 1 metre and a raised voice is typically around 10 dB higher and a shouting voice level is another 10 dB higher. Virus transmission apparently increases with an increased vocal effort due to aerosol transmission.
Typical noise levels in restaurants, pubs etc. when no music is playing, when several patrons (say more than half the capacity) are conversing in a normal voice level and where no substantial acoustic absorption exists in the space, are an LAeq around the high 70s to low 80s dB. Based on the above information, the proposed 85 dB limit (with another educated assumption that it is an LAeq rather than an LAmax or some other sound level parameter) appears to be cogent.
However, depending on the layout of the space and the sound reinforcement system design, the resultant music sound level may be inaudible in some areas of the venue. Venues that have multiple loudspeakers in the space and thus result in a more uniform sound pressure level across the patron area will fare better than venues that rely on a small number of loudspeakers.
What should a prudent business owner do right now?
A pragmatic approach to demonstrate compliance with these Regulations would be to take sound readings at 1 metre from the loudspeakers and adjust the volume accordingly. It may be wise to make such adjustments using pink or white noise (freely available samples exist on youtube). Afterwards, when the venue is open and the patrons are in, additional spot readings can be undertaken periodically whilst the music is playing and check that the level at 1 metre from the loudspeakers still does not exceed an LAeq of 85 dB.
The Regulations do not specify the acoustic instrumentation to be used (and thus the accuracy required) or the required level of expertise of the person undertaking the sound readings (to demonstrate compliance with these Regulations).
Business owners and managers of the affected hospitality venues should know that Class 1 sound level meters are pricey (in the £ thousands) and probably prohibitively expensive especially at these testing times.
However Class 2 sound level meters (in the low £ hundreds) are the minimum standard requirement for the measurement of occupational noise, and perhaps these would be considered acceptable. There is also sound level meter hire companies that may be able to assist.
Perhaps, due to these testing times, an even more pragmatic approach should be taken.
Since the Regulations do not make specific provisions, can it be that a sound level meter app on a smartphone can be used instead?
A study by NIOSH in 2016 examined the performance of sound measurement apps using external microphones. The study showed sound level measurements to be within ±1 dB of the reference system using the same test setup and apps from the initial study. This study suggests that using external, calibrated, microphones greatly improves the overall accuracy and precision of smartphone sound measurements, and removes much of the variability and limitations associated with the built-in smartphone microphones.
However, a paper was published in 2015 which reports on experimental tests undertaken to assess the capability of noise monitoring applications to be utilised as an alternative low-cost solution to traditional noise monitoring using a sound level meter. This study found that the sound level analyzer lite (only available on the iPhone) is within ±1 dB of true noise levels across four different reference conditions.
Perhaps if a smartphone app is used instead of a calibrated sound level meter, the setup and checks should use a lower music noise limit, say an LAeq of 82 or 83 dB at 1 metre from a loudspeaker (and of course there may be many venues where even lower limits are suitable).
The Regulations do not specify the regulatory body that will ensure compliance, and in all likelihood, this will be an Environmental Health Officer from the Local Authority, unless the government creates another temporary Covid response team. In reality, it will be unlikely that inspectors with sound level meters will visit all relevant venues to undertake compliance tests. In all likelihood, enforcement will only occur on the worst offenders who have music clearly at levels that are subjectively too high.
It can be argued that these hastily produced Regulations are not clear or precise and their enforcement is difficult. Perhaps the Government, or the relevant local authorities, ought to publish an update with some additional relevant guidance. Until this happens, the suggestions in this article may provide a sensible and pragmatic way forward for affected business owners, to mitigate the associated risks to their business. Alternatively, these business owners can simply hire some musicians to perform live at their venues (since live performances are exempt from these Regulations). This would definitely assist the livelihoods of the musicians, but the effects on the spread of the virus are not so clear since under Paragraph 1(A) (a) of these Regulations the person responsible for the operation of the affected business is requested to stop singing on the premises by customers in groups of more than six.