The US and UK’s COVID Confusion: Backwards Approaches, Same Results
By: Ryan Murphy
Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is in a worse place than it was when cases spiked in the spring and summer. Worldwide deaths are now regularly topping 10,000 per day, and countries around the world are entering their second and third lockdowns. Although some countries, like Australia and New Zealand, have successfully combated the pandemic and are now living virus-free, most of the world is struggling to follow suit. Nowhere is this clearer than in the United States and United Kingdom, where vastly different strategies for combatting the virus have met equally dire results.
The disparities are epitomized by the countries’ returns to sport. Home to the five most profitable sports leagues in the world, the US and UK have powered through COVID concerns to make sure that profits from the multi-billion-dollar sports industry are realized. While that makes economic sense, the countries have rolled out seemingly opposite measures to combat the virus, for both players and fans.
The U.S. has focused heavily on testing and imposing strict guidelines on players and teams, while allowing thousands of fans to enter stadiums. Meanwhile the UK has focused primarily on symptoms, has looser guidelines for its players and teams, and only allowed fans to start returning to stadiums on December 3.
While both countries have been able to field the majority of their games and matches without issues, COVID concerns remain ever-present and threaten future competition. So, while rugby and soccer games in Australia and New Zealand are being played in front of sold-out stadiums, fans and players in the US and UK are wondering if there’s even hope for a return to normalcy in 2021.
The failure of the two opposing COVID responses suggests that normalcy is far off. A closer look at each country’s protocols leaves little doubt as to why.
American leagues have focused on testing, which has allowed them to keep track of the virus and make adjustments on the fly. For example, the NFL tests its players and all essential staff every single day of the regular season, except for game days. The MLB tested its players every other day during its shortened 2020 season. As a result, both leagues have been able to modify schedules to contain the spread of the virus.
The MLB and NFL also implemented strict mask-wearing requirements. MLB umpires were required to wear masks at all times during the 2020 season, and some players even opted to wear masks while they played. In the NFL, coaches and teams have been fined millions of dollars and stripped of future draft picks for failing to adhere to COVID protocols. For example, Jon Gruden of the Las Vegas Raiders and Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints were each fined $100,000 for wearing masks improperly during their Week 2 matchup and each team also received a $250,000 fine. NFL officials are also required to wear masks during games, and as of November 23, the NFL further required its players to start wearing masks while on the bench.
The new NBA protocols, which were released on November 29, prohibit anyone who tests positive from participating in any activities for at least 10 days. After 10 days, players must spend two days working out alone and get clearance from a team doctor for risk exposure. Additionally, travel parties will be limited to 45 people throughout the season.
These protocols come in the wake of the NBA’s successful Orlando bubble to complete the 2019-20 season. In the bubble, players and staff were required to quarantine in their rooms for 48 hours upon arrival and remained quarantined until receiving two consecutive negative tests. Masks were required at all times throughout the Disney campus (except for players playing), those who left the bubble had to re-quarantine upon returning and everyone in the bubble was “regularly” tested as well.
In the UK, on the other hand, testing is much less common. When the Premier League first returned from lockdown in summer 2020, players and coaches were being tested twice per week. The EFL Championship, the second division of English soccer, employed similar protocols. By the start of the new PL season in September, testing had been reduced to once per week. In the Championship and lower leagues, teams are no longer testing unless someone is exhibiting symptoms or has come in contact with someone known to be positive.
Furthermore, the mask requirements in the UK are a lot looser. All personnel must wear masks and get their temperatures taken when arriving at stadiums but coaches, officials, and bench players are not required to wear masks during games. The players and coaches are “bubbled” within their teams and travel separate from technical staff for road games but there is little transparency for the outside world to see what kind of protocols are in place and if they are being enforced. One need only watch a game to see plenty of technical staffers, such as announcers and groundskeepers, not wearing masks or social distancing.
Despite these less stringent protocols, the lack of testing has led to a lot fewer positives in UK athletes, as compared to American athletes. Therefore, the Premier League and EFL have been able to carry on without any postponements. Until this week, that is.
On December 1, the Premier League announced that Newcastle United’s game against Aston Villa, scheduled for December 5, would be postponed, following an outbreak of COVID in Newcastle. In the six months of English soccer since returning from COVID lockdown, this is the first game to get postponed. But are we really supposed to think this is the first outbreak within a sports team in the UK? The UK currently has the fifth most COVID deaths in the world, and a comparable case rate to the US (2.5% in the UK, 4.3% in the US).
It’s unrealistic to think that the virus has not touched athletes in the UK while the rest of the country is struggling as much as ever. In November alone, both Wales and England instituted a second round of lockdowns, but soccer chugged along. Therefore, it’s possible, if not likely, that dozens or even hundreds of players in the English soccer system have contracted the virus and played in games while infected. When you consider how loose some of the protocols are in European and international soccer, this is a scary thought.
Not only are the UK’s protocols seemingly a lot looser but the general protocols regarding transfers and international soccer are baffling. To demonstrate, let’s take a look at Harry Wilson’s first 18 days of October. Wilson is currently a winger for Cardiff City, on loan from Liverpool.
In 18 days, Wilson did not just play three games, he played for three different teams in three different countries. He had a very similar schedule in November too, with another international break. Most concerning, though, is that there are hundreds of “Harry Wilsons” who have had similar transfer and international playing experiences in the past few months. Not to mention, is there a worse idea during a pandemic than congregating players from around the world to play exhibition matches before sending them back to their home countries a few days later?
It is unclear how many times Wilson was tested for COVID in that span but the Premier League did not institute testing requirements for players returning from international duty until mid-November. Whether similar testing is happening at the EFL level is also unclear. Either way, the standards are clearly a lot less strict than in the US.
In 12 weeks of NFL football this season, 18 games have been rescheduled, some more than once. Just this week, the Baltimore Ravens placed 24 players on their COVID list and were forced to play the Pittsburgh Steelers without many key starters. The Denver Broncos had to play a game without a quarterback because the rostered quarterbacks didn’t follow mask-wearing and social distancing protocols. Even though three of the quarterbacks were confirmed negative for COVID before the game, the league still required them to sit out. The San Francisco 49ers have just relocated to Arizona because Santa Clara county has banned teams from practicing and playing sports at all.
How is it, then, that British soccer has been able to operate almost entirely unscathed by COVID-19 while cases run rampant in the NFL? It would be one thing if the UK was doing much better than the US, but that’s hardly the case. And this leads to the question of fans.
For as much as American leagues have been hypervigilant about the virus with their players and teams, they have allowed tens of thousands of fans to flood into stadiums across the country. No stadiums are being filled to capacity but the Dallas Cowboys have welcomed as many as 31,700 fans for games, nearly 40% of the stadium capacity. While fans are technically required to wear masks and sit in a socially distant fashion, it is very hard for teams to monitor thousands of fans while they watch a game. Furthermore, enforcement of the fan protocols is challenging, especially for teams that allow more fans, like the Cowboys, who are responsible for one-third of the total NFL attendance in the 2020 season.
Each state has different rules regarding fans in stadiums, so some teams have yet to see their fans at all this season (ex. Rams, Packers, and Raiders, among others). Despite nationwide COVID deaths nearing 3,000 per day in the US, though, teams and leagues continue devising plans to allow more fans in.
The same can now be said in the UK, where fans were allowed to return to stadiums starting on December 3. Yes, in the same week that English soccer is postponing its first game because of the virus, it will also start welcoming fans to stadiums across the country. A tier-system dictates how many fans are allowed based on COVID rates in the area (tier 1 = 4,000 fans, tier 2 = 2,000 fans, tier 3 = no fans). Of the 104 Premier League, EFL, and Women’s Super League teams in England, 51 will be allowed to welcome fans while 53 remain in tier 3. Fans will be required to wear masks during the games, have their temperatures checked upon arrival, and temper their singing and chanting during matches.
Having fans back will be a boost to clubs, especially those in the EFL, which rely heavily on fan attendance as opposed to TV revenue. Some Championship clubs like Cardiff City, for example, lose roughly $538,000 in revenue per game that is played without fans. However, given the spikes in cases in the UK, it begs the question whether the timing is right.
Overall, sports in the US and UK have carried on through the pandemic, and it’s quite clear that almost nothing will stop them at this point. The money generated by sports is simply too much to pass up on. The two countries have employed vastly different tactics to combat the virus and both have been equally ample yet underwhelming. Although sports have continued, both countries are arguably in worse places than they were a few months ago.
So, what does this teach us?
Ultimately, half-hearted approaches do not work for combatting a pandemic. The US has focused heavily on testing, but has been loose on fans, allowing revenues to speak louder than science and common sense in many cases. The UK, on the other hand, has protected fans but had very questionable policies regarding player movement and mask-wearing. While UK sports have run more smoothly than the US to this point, it is clear that neither approach is working very well. As long as these two world powers continue to operate under inconsistent guidelines – with regard to sport and society at large – there is little hope for a return to normalcy, absent an effective vaccine. Let’s hope 2021 gives it to us.
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