In the summer of 2022, a COVID-19 infection sent William White to the hospital.

The drummer for the indie rock band Glass Beach, a proggy, emo-ish four-piece that has amassed a cult following online, White got sick while traveling to Salt Lake City’s Pride Festival, a show they’d debated playing in the first place. To White, COVID-19 felt out of control, and mass gatherings risky, but they’d been invited because queer kids involved with the Utah Pride Center voted Glass Beach their headliner of choice for a youth pride event

“I wasn’t super sure about it,” White recalled during a recent interview while on their way to a show in Phoenix, Arizona. “But that sounded so special and important to us.”

White’s bandmate, lead guitarist Layne Smith, tested positive for COVID the morning after that 13-and-a-half-hour drive to Utah. Knowing they’d all soon show symptoms, Glass Beach canceled the show and returned to Seattle that day. Four days later, doctors admitted White to the hospital with a rising 103-degree fever. Then, weeks later, a COVID-19 infection put their father on a ventilator. For White, a person who already masked and avoided public gatherings, the experiences deepened their understanding of how dangerous the infection could be.

In January, White and a handful of other volunteers launched the Seattle Clean Air Collective, a mutual aid organization that lends air purification gear like air filters and specialized, pathogen-destroying ultraviolet lights to artists and musicians for no charge. The group is part of a growing movement composed of people across the country who feel government agencies and corporations have abandoned their safety and ignored an evolving understanding of the virus for profit and a false promise of normalcy. In the absence of official action, people like White feel safety has become a community responsibility.

“If the shows are going to be happening anyway, they should be a lot safer than they are,” White said.

The number of Americans still taking COVID-19 precautions, such as indoor masking, is dwindling as local and national public health agencies continue to relax health guidelines. On March 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aligned its recommendations with other respiratory viruses and told Americans they should no longer isolate themselves for five days after testing positive for the virus and could return to normal activities after 24 fever-free hours. On March 7, the CDC ended a program that provided free tests to the public, and on the 20th, Washington’s department of health dropped its five-day rule.

Not all scientists agreed with the CDC and argued that despite these policies changing, the transmissibility of COVID-19 had not. Data showed people could spread the virus outside the five-day window. 

The Seattle Clean Air Collective is not the first organization of its kind. A Chicago-based group called Clean Air Club is credited with the idea of a clean air lending library when it began distributing air filters last year. In September, Clean Air Club posted its guide on Instagram instructing people how to start their own clubs. People commented the names of their cities below, seeking others interested in organizing, including Seattle Clean Air Collective co-founder Taylor Klekamp. Organizers in at least 29 cities—Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Charlottesville, Melbourne, Australia, and Vancouver, British Columbia—have also replicated the Clean Air Club model.

Klekamp said that given the decline of mainstream media reports on COVID-19 and changes to official monitoring, many Americans have gotten the impression that the virus is no longer a threat, and that has left behind people who would love to be out in the community but can’t afford the risk to their health, or the health of their loved ones. Others don’t want to feel complicit in putting vulnerable people in jeopardy. Long COVID is a particular concern because scientists are still not certain how repeat COVID-19 infections affect the body.

A growing body of research suggests the consequences could be severe. A 2022 study published in the journal Nature Medicine found that people who contract COVID-19 multiple times were more likely to develop chronic health conditions such as kidney disease, diabetes, and organ failure. For the study, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis analyzed medical data from 5.8 million patients in the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ electronic healthcare database and discovered that each new infection compounded the chance of both death and adverse health outcomes, even if a person were vaccinated. Those risks were most pronounced during the acute stage of infection but persisted for at least 6 months.

“If [repeat infections] really turns out to be something that's not a big deal, the worst thing we did was care too much about keeping other people a little bit safer,” Klekamp said. “But if it does turn out to be something that has more long-term health implications, then we did the right thing in trying to slow the spread and mitigate the impacts.”

Seattle’s collective has a small collection of three purifiers and three far-UVC lamps circulating in Seattle. The equipment is so in demand that most of the time organizers are coordinating direct hand-offs between borrowers. People seeking equipment can fill out a brief Google form that asks when and where it’s needed, whether the event requires masks or not, and a detailed description of the space so volunteers can determine the gear of best fit. 

Research suggests the equipment could make a difference. A number of studies show that high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can significantly reduce the concentration of viral particles in air. Distinct from conventional UVC germicidal lights used for sterilizing hospital rooms that can damage the skin and eyes, far-UVC light has a wavelength long enough to eviscerate bacteria and viruses, but too short to penetrate living human tissue. 

In 2022, Researchers at Columbia University found that commercially available far-UVC lamps placed in a large chamber eradicated 98% of microbes in just five minutes. In another 2024 study from Columbia, researchers inactivated 99% of an airborne virus in a room at the University where laboratory mice cages are cleaned. There’s just one problem with far-UV technology: When the light hits oxygen molecules, some break down to form harmful ozone, which can be a hazard without proper ventilation. Scientists still are not sure how serious that problem could be, and whether the trade-off would be worth it if implemented on a large scale.

While scientists say more research on the promising technologies is needed outside laboratory settings, neither is a silver bullet in the fight against COVID. They’re meant as an additional layer of protection in a patchwork of COVID-19 mitigation strategies like masking, testing, and vaccination. The Seattle Clean Air Collective promotes events as COVID-safer, not COVID-safe, because risk is never zero. This month, its filters will be at ANTHER’s Tractor Tavern show, Black & Pink’s letter-writing party for incarcerated queers at Pipsqueak, and Danza Libre.

Noah Filistowicz, organizer of the queer wrestling group Wrestle Yr Friends, borrowed an air filter from Seattle Clean Air Collective for its most recent Valentine’s event at Lost Lake and saw higher turnout than ever before. In addition to filtration, organizers required masks.

“People get really excited about all of the COVID features, even people who don’t mask in everyday life,” Filistowicz said. “People that don’t often feel safe leaving the house will come to these events because at every level, we add that level of security.”

DJ Mimi Zima, who has been vocal about her support for COVID mitigation in nightlife, used two filters for a March 30 mask-required dance party at Kremwerk called Safety Dance. Zima said nightlife friends from pre-pandemic times who she hadn’t seen in more than four years came out, expressing gratitude for the chance to enjoy music in a setting that felt relatively safe. 

“It’s not some niche thing that doesn’t have an audience—there’s a very large audience of people who want COVID safer nightlife,” she said. “While I understand a masking standard for nightlife isn’t a realistic goal, I do think it is a thing that should exist. … If you’re someone who bought into the idea that everything’s gonna be fine, and you don’t have to think about this, you need to really wake up because that is a dream you’re living in.”

Seattle Clean Air Collective’s ultimate aspiration is redundancy. Klekamp said she hopes their work will inspire businesses and other public venues to improve their ventilation systems. The collective is entertaining the idea of creating a certification program for venues with adequate filtration, similar to what Clean Air Club in Chicago is doing.

“Marginalized folks are the ones lugging purifiers around to protect the community at large,” she said. “A lot of these artists who are borrowing are immunocompromised, and so it is really putting the onus on the people who are more vulnerable in the community. I would love it if they didn’t have to do that.”