With ultraviolet protection, a Boston cabaret may be safer from COVID-19 than almost anywhere

Twice a week, Frankie Campofelice sings with pianist Andy Lantz to kick off a lively open-mic night in Club Café’s Napoleon Room. The South End gay club room can accommodate around 40 people for drinks, dinner and a cabaret show. When the pandemic first hit in 2020, Campofelice says things really came to a halt.

“Obviously, once COVID started, all indoor performances pretty much stopped,” Campofelice said during a break from a recent performance. “And then there was a time here, you know, where there was like plexiglass between all the tables.”

But he said things started getting closer to normal in the Napoleon Hall last winter, thanks to new technology that may have made it one of the safest performance halls for COVIDs in the world. world. And it could be a model for other types of indoor halls.

On the ceiling of the Napoleon Room are seven devices that project ultraviolet light downward onto the room which clears the air of floating viruses.

Harvard Medical School professor Ed Nardell organized the donation and installation of the devices. He is also an amateur cabaret singer and a regular at Club Café open mic nights.

“As someone who comes here frequently, I thought we could probably do something to make it safer for people to take their masks off to eat, drink and sing,” Nardell said.

Professor Ed Nardell of Harvard Medical School sings during The Napoleon Room Open Mic Night on Thursday, June 16, 2022.

Craig LeMoult / GBH News

The use of ultraviolet light to decontaminate parts is not new. In the 1980s, Nardell was installing and researching UV lamps to reduce the spread of tuberculosis. And during the pandemic, many public places have installed UV systems. But these units are designed to sanitize the air only at ceiling level, because people’s exposure to UV rays can cause skin and eye damage.

“But wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually directly inactivate microbes, bacteria and viruses where we stand, right at the same level where you and I are present?” asked David Brenner, a professor at Columbia University, before a recent cabaret performance at the venue.

Brenner researched a new approach called Far UVC, which is used in the Napoleon room. It uses a shorter wavelength of ultraviolet light and its research shows it is safe for humans.

“It can’t get into living cells and our skin, can’t get into the living part of our eye,” Brenner said.

Brenner has found it to be safe and effective in killing all floating viruses.

“What they do is produce a kind of cone of energy that comes down and covers about table level a lot of the surface and a lot of the air in the room,” said Nardell explained.

Even though the “cones” don’t cover the entire room, Nardell said air flows through, passes under them, and becomes almost completely sanitized.

But he acknowledged that the technology had its downsides. The relatively small Napoleon Hall system would have cost about $16,000, including installation, had it not been for the donations.

“Its cost is currently high and its availability is not as great as that of older UV [systems]”, Nardell said. “But little by little, these will probably be resolved.”

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Pianist Andy Lantz performs in the Napoleon room of the Club Café. One of the Far UVC devices in the room is attached to the ceiling near the purple projector, a small white box with a light on it.

Craig LeMoult / GBH News

Pamela Enders, a regular at open-mic nights, says there’s nowhere else in Boston quite like the Napoleon Room, and she appreciates the extra level of protection.

“For someone who loves to sing and listen to singers, this is heaven,” she said. “And the fact that these UV systems have been installed makes it safer for all of us, so I’m very grateful that this happened.”

There have been no known outbreaks of COVID-19 at the club since the lights were installed in February.

Over time, Nardell said, he hopes to see Far UVC become a much more mainstream technology, making all kinds of public spaces as safe as the Napoleon Room.

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