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All Premier League matches to be played in empty stadiums due to coronavirus starting Thursday

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Thus it begins.

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According to a crisis plan developed by the government of the UK, all English football matches are set to be played behind closed doors and in empty stadiums beginning as soon as tomorrow due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

The Times of London writes that the UK government is expected to escalate the country’s response to the coronavirus threat by moving from a “contain” phase to a “delay” phase as soon as Thursday, triggering the closure of football matches to the general public. Matches at all levels of English football will not be cancelled or postponed, but will be played without spectators to minimize the spread of the virus.

For Tottenham Hotspur fans, this means this Sunday’s match between Spurs and Manchester United will be played at an empty Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Under the plan, matches will also not be televised in pubs in order to further promote the idea of social distancing and discourage people congregating together to watch sport. Instead, matches will be live-streamed, with links given to season and individual ticket holders at all matches so they can watch matches in their homes or on their devices. There will also be adjustments to when and how many matches will be televised in the UK, including the Premier League moving matches away from the 3 p.m. Saturday time slot.

There is currently no information on whether United States broadcast plans will be changed, though it is unlikely.

With reports of COVID-19 diagnoses increasing across the planet, many organizations and sports leagues are in the process of postponing or canceling events, or moving events behind closed doors. This isn’t just in the United Kingdom — in the United States, the NCAA announced on Wednesday that the first two rounds of the annual NCAA college basketball tournament would be held in empty stadiums with only essential personnel and family members in attendance.

England’s move to close football matches follows on the heels of Italy’s Serie A, who have not only cancelled or closed matches but are actively making plans to terminate the league season early. According to the Times, the Premier League and the FA are hesitant to cancel the season due to “sporting integrity,” but the situation is fluid and this may not be the final decision before all is said and done. The report states that the bigger concern is not fans in a massive stadium, but rather fans going to and from the match in close proximity to each other on crowded trains and other forms of public transport. Should the virus begin to spread between players through contact during matches, it is likely that the leagues will begin to cancel matches altogether.