As the world starts to figure out a way to loosen restrictions around the various levels of lockdown each country has implemented, the eyes of sports fans have been itching for any kind of hope that there would be live events to watch sooner rather than later.
The English Premier League, which stopped play on March 13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has been holding weekly meetings in an effort to determine when it would be safe to return to play and complete the 2019-20 campaign. These meetings have resulted in rumors all over the spectrum, including scrapping the season entirely to ending it and preparing for the 2020-21 season.
Today, the Premier League has been given the go-ahead to figure out how to restart their season behind closed doors after June 1.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out a road map to ease lockdown restrictions during the coronavirus crisis on Sunday evening and a full report has since been released.
The 50-page document includes “permitting cultural and sporting events to take place behind closed-doors for broadcast, while avoiding the risk of large-scale social contact,” but this cannot happen before June 1.
Entitled “Our Plan to Rebuild: The UK Government’s Covid-19 Recovery Strategy,” the document says lockdown measures will only be eased once certain measures have been met.
The UK government have listed numerous measures that must be met. We’re not going to get into all of them or else this article will never end. In short, it boils down to a few things: No fans, finding venues that make sense, and the safety of players and staff.
The first two are probably the easiest to implement. Closed doors matches are nothing new, though they’re almost always a punishment for nefarious actions. In this case, it’s a means to keep fans safe and not cause a spike in cases. By now, we’ve all heard about the UEFA Champions League match between Atalanta and Valencia that resulted in a massive spike of cases in both Spain and Italy. No club or league wants to be responsible for that again so the closed doors decision is an easy one. A more difficult decision will come as to how long matches should be played without fans, but that can will be kicked well down the road.
Neutral venues have been discussed in the EPL meetings in the last few weeks and has gained momentum. Now that the UK government has given the thumbs up, expect those discussions to ramp up.
However, this is all for naught without the approval of players and staff. High profile players, such as Sergio Aguero of Manchester City, have stated that a majority of players are scared of what could happen if just one player who has the virus plays in a match:
“The majority of players are scared because they have children and families,” Aguero told Argentine TV station El Chiringuito.
“I’m scared, but I’m with my girlfriend here and I’m not going to be in contact with other people. I’m locked in my house and the only person I could infect is my girlfriend.
“They’re saying that there are people that have it and don’t have any symptoms but still infect you. That’s why I am here at home. Maybe I have the illness and I don’t even know.”
Aguero isn’t wrong, of course. While we still don’t know as much as we’d like to about COVID-19, we’ve learned that people infected with the virus may not show symptoms for up to two weeks yet be highly contagious. His concern is a real one, given that players can contract the virus and spread it to their loved ones.
Then there’s the match day staff. According to The Telegraph, it can take as many as 300 people to put on a Premier League match. This comes down to club staff, security, TV network staff, etc. All of these people will be asked for their approval. It’s expected that they will all wear masks and gloves to fall in line with PPE requirements while adhering to social distancing rules, but that’s not a 100% guarantee that will work. I’ve covered MLS matches in the past here in the United States and some of those areas are cramped, which is why it will be important to choose the correct neutral venues and ensure everyone involved has room to operate.
There’s still a lot of dominoes that need to fall before we see live matches again. This is an important step, but an early one. Whether or not this is the correct move is in the eye of the beholder, but we can expect to hear plans ramp up in the next couple of weeks. For now, the EPL looks dead set on completing the 2019-20 campaign. What that looks like remains to be seen.