July is being targeted as the date when spectators will be permitted to return to venues and attend sporting events. That’s the verdict from Ireland’s Minister for Sport Jack Chambers.
While the United Kingdom has opened the doors of certain sites once more to supporters at events such as the Carabao Cup final in London and the recent World Snooker Championships in Sheffield, popular events for wagering at the best sports books, the Irish government is opting to maintain a cautious approach to reopening the country in terms of non-essential participation.
Before swinging the doors wide open, Chambers indicated that test events will be held with small gatherings and that spectators who attend these future events will be required to adhere to stringent new rules designed to inhibit the spread of COVID-19 at public gatherings.
“It might not happen in the next two weeks but early July is not that far away,” Chambers told RTE Radio. “The government has agreed early July is when we will see fans back. I accept that people will want to see them a little sooner, but we want to get it right.”
A Plan In Place
Chambers noted that the government has been working toward implementing a return to spectators program for supporters of Irish sports clubs since the fall of 2020.
“We had a Return to Spectators plan that was formulated last October,” Chambers said. I met with Martin Murphy, the chair of that last week and they are updating that plan now and the guidelines around that, taking into account the updated vaccination effect which has to be incorporated, that could allow for more fans in the stands than had been planned for initially.”
The hope is that by the summer months, enough of the country will have received the COVID-19 vaccine in order to permit larger gatherings than had been originally anticipated. More than 2 million Irish people have received the COVID-19 vaccine.
“In the original document we had five percent as a starter of capacity, which would be 4,000-5,000 for Croke Park, then up to a two-metre distance would allow for about 15,000 in Croke Park, a one metre distance would be about 30,000 in Croke Park,” Chambers said.
The Minister was also quick to point out that while some British sporting events were welcoming the return of supporters, the fact of the matter is that the percentage of seats being filled was quite limited in comparison to the capacity of these venues.
"The guidelines are there and we are updating that to incorporate antigen testing or PCR,” Chambers said. “If you take the League Cup game in the UK . . . they had 8,000 in a 90,000 capacity stadium.”
Pacing Themselves To Assure A Safe Return
If there’s a lesson to be learned from previous attempts to return to normal during this pandemic, it’s that too much, too soon tends to set the progress back to a state where lockdowns are once more required. That’s one of the main reasons the Irish government is opting to take a steady, patient approach when discussing any return to attendance at sporting venues.
"What we want to do is get this right,” Chambers said. “What we don't want to see is a mass number of people going into a stadium where it's not planned and not controlled and we have potentially a super-spreader event.
“They are meeting again this week - the GAA, FAI and IRFU are involved in that group - and we will move that into government very quickly and plan tester events for early July, and if they work - and fans will be conscious of making that work so we can expand that
capacity through the summer - this is about the phased and cautious reopening, but I am confident fans will be back this summer.”
Steps will be implemented to ensure that those who do opt to attend events will be doing so safely. Among the measures taken will be personalized ticketing, staggered entry and exit, and prohibition of congregation before and after matches. That may mean certain supporters will be assigned allotted arrival times via their ticket stub.
"All the governing bodies want to see fans back at games,”Chambers said. “I do as minister and we will do everything we can to accelerate that plan and give an indication in early June for what test events we are looking at and then try to expand capacity as we accelerate the vaccination programme and get it right.”