U.K. prime minster Boris Johnson has announced the end of England’s month-long second Covid lockdown, with the country set to switch to a three-tier system that will allow some fans to attend live sporting events for the first time since spring. And while there are many questions about how it all will work — who will get to buy tickets at reduced-capacity events, how much will they cost, can they be discouraged from hugging each other when a goal is scored? — let’s focus today on one question: Is this very very stupid?
The details of the sports fan plan:
- In “tier 1” areas where virus levels are relatively moderate, outdoor sports venues can allow in a maximum of 4,000 fans or 50% of capacity, whichever is less. Indoor venues will face an attendance limit of 1,000 fans or 50% of capacity, whichever is lower.
- In “tier 2” areas with high virus levels, the same attendance caps apply, but the outdoor maximum is 2,000 or 50%, whichever is lower.
- In “tier 3” (very high alert) areas, no fans are allowed at all.
Is this stupid? For many sports venues, not at all: 4,000 fans at Arsenal‘s Emirates Stadium, for example, is under 7% of capacity, and so should leave plenty of room for fans to spread out. (London is actually likely to be a tier 2 zone, so Arsenal would be limited to 2,000 fans at first.) Given both the experience of U.S. stadiums and what we know about the spread of the virus outdoors, that seems relatively safe, especially if everyone is wearing masks (which hasn’t been announced as a requirement yet, but is likely) and is kept from from spending significant time gathering in indoor areas like concessions concourses or restrooms (which also hasn’t been spelled out yet).
For other stadiums, the flat cap looks very different. A.F.C. Bournemouth, for example, plays in the second-tier Championship level in an 11,000-seat stadium; since Bournemouth is in the low-virus south of England, they’re likely to be allowed the full 4,000 fans per game, which is getting close to half capacity. That’s maybe okay in a low-virus area, but does it really make any sense to make it the equivalent of 2,000 fans rattling around Emirates in a higher-virus zone?
Allowing 1,000 fans/50% capacity for indoor sports, meanwhile, seems patently insane: Most of the British Basketball League, for example, plays in arenas with capacities of under 2,000, so they’ll be able to pack in fans in every other seat. That’s not very much distancing, and six-foot distancing is essentially useless indoors anyway, meaning Surrey Scorchers fans will be at a massively higher risk than Arsenal or Chelsea or Tottenham fans — if anything, it seems like it would make much more sense, epidemiologically, to ban fans entirely at indoor sporting events and allow somewhat more at outdoor ones.
But epidemiological sense surely isn’t the guiding factor here; rather, this feels more like an attempt to level the playing field, so that every sports team can bumble through some sort of reopening, at least once every region has worked its way out of Tier 3 status. That’s par for the course for sports leagues right now — just look at college basketball in the U.S., which is determined to restart play (without fans, but with lots of players traveling to and from high-virus areas and then breathing on each other during games indoors) even though college football has barely managed to limp along with partial seasons. But it’s not the kind of guidance one would hope for from a national government, even one with a pretty lousy track record in this area. Verdict: Pretty stupid.