In England, Shifting Virus Rules Close Doors One Day and Open Them the Next

In England, Shifting Virus Rules Close Doors One Day and Open Them the Next

October 14, 2020

In a country where pubs can welcome customers but open-air stadiums cannot, the incoherence of government regulations is on full display in soccer.

Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

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By Rory Smith

LONDON — There were two soccer games played over the weekend at Hayes Lane, a neat, compact stadium in a quiet corner of southeast London. The first, on Saturday afternoon, played out in the pin-drop silence that characterizes sports amid the pandemic. Just as they are in the Premier League, fans were barred from attending when Bromley F.C. — the team that owns the place — faced Torquay United in English soccer’s fifth tier.

On Sunday, it was the turn of Hayes Lane’s other occupant, Cray Wanderers, to play. Cray sits a couple of divisions below Bromley, its landlord for more than two decades. Most years, its games attract only a couple of hundred fans. “We are the oldest club in London,” said Sam Wright, its chief executive. “We might have the oldest fans, too.”

Wright had been expecting this particular weekend to be different. With no Premier League games on television, thanks to an international break, he had been hoping for as many as 500 fans to come down. In the end, the crowd numbered just 357: more than Cray might normally have attracted, but still, as Wright said, “rather disappointing.”

Still, that two games in the same sport might be held on the same weekend, in the same stadium, and under disparate regulations is indicative of the confusing — and often contradictory — labyrinth of rules and restrictions that has marked Britain’s attempts to curb the spread of coronavirus.

After a summer in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson encouraged Britons to “eat out to help out” the ailing hospitality sector, the government has had a complete turnabout in recent weeks. Last month, after weeks of telling office workers it was time to resume their daily commutes, the government reversed course, instructing them instead to continue to work from home wherever possible. Then, after first ordering pubs nationwide to close an hour earlier than normal, the government on Monday ordered them to close completely in Liverpool, the city deemed at the highest risk of coronavirus spread.

As recently as last week, Mr. Johnson had encouraged people to go the cinema in order to stave off job losses. This week, he introduced a new three-tiered system of localized lockdowns, with several cities — mostly in the north of England — now governed by stringent limits on socializing, and some businesses ordered to close completely.

At the same time, several indoor arts venues in London — including the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Opera House and the O2 Arena — have announced plans to reopen this winter in front of socially distanced audiences. Yet watching sporting events in large, outdoor venues, remains banned.

The bafflement felt by many over these last few months was, perhaps, best summed up by the television presenter Philip Schofield, who pointed out to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, that it is currently legal to gather 30 adults to go and hunt ducks, but illegal to gather 30 children to feed them.

Nowhere, though, is the Kafkaesque incoherence of the regulations laid bare more clearly than in soccer, where the situation is so complex that even those who stand to benefit from it — like Wright, the chief executive of Cray — describe it as “ridiculous.”

Presently, the rules run like this: All so-called elite games must be held without fans. Elite, in this sense, applies to the top six tiers of the sport, from the glamorous, cosseted world of the Premier League all the way down to the National League North and South, divisions stocked with a mix of professionalized and semiprofessional teams.

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