LONDON (AP) — Spectators will be allowed back into some sports events in England from next week as coronavirus prevention measures are tested ahead of a planned wider reopening of stadiums in October.
Domestic cricket on July 26-27 is set to be the first sport that fans are allowed to watch in person since March. Some spectators will also be allowed into the world snooker championship in Sheffield from July 31, and the Glorious Goodwood horse racing festival on Aug. 1 is also part of a government scheme piloting the return of fans.
“From October we intend to bring back audiences in stadia … in a COVID-secure way subject to the successful outcome of pilots,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in Downing Street on Friday.
Prof. Susan Michie, who advises the government on the pandemic response, fears reopening sports to fans — particularly indoor venues — could lead to a rise in virus cases and another lockdown.
“We’ve gone too far, too fast already,” Michie said in an interview. “I think the data will begin to show that. I don’t think we should have opened indoor pubs, much as I like pubs. And I think to begin opening up mass sporting events is not a good idea.”
Stadium capacities will still be restricted, and staggered entry times, social distancing measures and one-way systems will be required. Barriers or screens will have to be installed where social distancing cannot be maintained when buying food and merchandise or betting. Fans will be told not to attend if they could have been exposed to COVID-19.
“With the excitement of sport, where people are standing up,” Michie said, “I don’t think social distancing would happen.”
Announcing a further easing of lockdown restrictions, Johnson said the measures could be reversed if coronavirus infection rates begin to climb again with concerns about a new coronavirus spike this winter.
The U.K.’s official pandemic death toll, which stood at more than 45,000 as of Friday, has for several weeks been the highest in Europe and the third highest in the world behind the United States and Brazil.
Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston cautioned that it will “remain some time” before stadiums can be full again. The Premier League will finish the season without fans at games, and there will be no spectators at the 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium for the FA Cup semifinals this weekend.
“For months millions of us have felt the void of being unable to go to the match to support our team or attend a top-class sporting event,” Huddleston said. “So I am pleased that we are now able to move forward with a plan to help venues safely reopen their doors to fans.
“I recognize that not every sport, team or club has the benefit of huge commercial revenue, and it is often their dedicated fans that are the lifeblood which helps keep them going. By working closely with sports and medical experts, these pilots will help ensure the safe return of fans to stadia.”
The English Football Association last month announced it was cutting 82 jobs to cover an anticipated deficit of 300 million pounds ($370 million) due to the pandemic restricting crowds at games and more events being canceled, including NFL regular season games.
The Community Shield, contested by the Premier League and FA Cup winners, has been floated as a potential test event.
“Supporters are the lifeblood of our national game, and that has been underlined by how much their absence has been felt at matches over the last month,” the FA said. “We will continue to work closely with the relevant authorities on how we can bring them back in a safe and secure manner, including any help we can provide to the proposed pilot events.”
English Rugby Football Union chief executive Bill Sweeney said in May that 85% of the governing body’s revenue comes from hosting men’s international games at Twickenham.
England has been working on the assumption its Six Nations campaign and quartet of autumn test matches can be played across October and November as the RFU seeks to avoid losses of more than $100 million caused by the pandemic.
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