LONDON (AP) — British sports are stepping up preparations for events to take place without spectators as the coronavirus spreads, with the Premier League keen to find a way to complete the season as the country grapples to contain the outbreak.
The government has been in regular contact with sports officials over the last week as COVID-19 concerns have escalated and talks are planned with governing bodies and broadcasters on Monday to form contingencies for playing games in empty stadiums, a person familiar with the plans said on Friday.
The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the talks.
Sky Sports, which airs the most Premier League games on British television, reported that broadcasters had been “summoned” for talks with the government.
The aim is to find a way for sport to continue while protecting the public. The Italian government this week ordered all sport to take place without spectators until April.
The Premier League, which is the world’s richest soccer competition, has discussed the impact of the season being abandoned completely on government orders.
But the league wants to find a way to complete the season, and planning includes the possibility of restricting access to games to the elderly who are at higher risk of serious illness from the virus, another person with knowledge of the situation told the AP on condition of anonymity.
The World Health Organization has said people over the age of 60 are at higher risk of complications and severe illness from COVID-19, particularly if they have underlying problems like diabetes and high blood pressure.
League officials, who are in direct contact with government virologists, believe it might not be until next month that the virus has spread to such an extent that games are played without fans.
Clubs with large stadiums face losing more than $5 million in revenue per match if fans aren’t allowed in.
Only 200 of the 380 Premier League games are shown live on British television —- whereas all can be aired internationally — with a particular block on broadcasting games from 2:45 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. on Saturdays in a bid to protect attendances at lower-league games.
But the league and broadcasters are in talks about finding a way of airing all games in stadiums that fans cannot access.
There are 10 rounds of Premier League games remaining, with Liverpool almost certain to end a 30-year title drought due to its 22-point lead over Manchester City. But there is far more uncertainty over which teams will clinch Champions League and Europa League spots or finish in the three relegation places.
The only noticeable change at Premier League and English Football League games this weekend will be players and match officials not shaking hands before kickoff based on medical advice.
“Coronavirus is spread via droplets from the nose and mouth and can be transmitted on to the hands and passed on via a handshake,” the Premier League said.
The prohibition on handshakes is also being viewed as part of public health messaging to encourage less contact between people as the government tries to delay the virus spreading.
Newcastle manager Steve Bruce said it is “pretty inevitable” that games will be played in empty stadiums.
“It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? But obviously, they’re doing it now in Italy and it’s something we’re probably going to face,” Bruce said. “We all know football is a way out for everybody, but people’s lives are at stake and we’ve got to go by the authorities.”
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