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The venerable FA Cup is also a science analysis for post-pandemic crowds

The British government will be watching scientists and fans watch Chelsea and Leicester City compete in the final of the world's oldest national soccer tournament.

LONDON, UK — The FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium is a must-see soccer match for the fans. It’s also a scientific experiment with far-reaching ramifications about how culture will reopen as the pandemic loosens its grasp in certain areas.

The British government will be watching scientists and fans watch Chelsea and Leicester City compete in the final of the world’s oldest national soccer tournament on Saturday afternoon. The president of the English Football Association, Prince William, will also be in attendance at the stadium in northwest London.

The Wembley case is the final and largest of a series of trials in the United Kingdom aimed at determining how large-scale gatherings will resume once coronavirus restrictions are removed.

Vaccine passports have not been used in the trials, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson had indicated. However, they are evaluating people’s ability to have proof that they are virus-free, among other items.

To get through the turnstiles at Wembley, the 21,000 fans will have to show proof of a negative lateral flow test from the previous 48 hours. These are the low-cost, relatively simple-to-use kits that include a throat and nose swab. Fans must go to a pharmacy or a National Health Service testing centre to be tested in this experiment.

In the Wembley experiment, the fans are also being encouraged to take a more precise PCR test before and after the game to gauge whether the less trustworthy lateral flow method is sufficient for preventing outbreaks.

“I feel like we are sorta being tested like lab rats,” said Alfie Collins-Smith, an 18-year-old student and Chelsea fan.

But he quickly added that he willingly signed on. “I’d do many, many tests, even quarantine, to go to this match. It’s the first live game I’ve gone to in 14 months,” he said.

Britain is gradually easing restrictions after its third national lockdown, and has announced a step-by-step roadmap to do so.

For the first time in months, pubs and restaurants can open indoors on Monday. Indoor and outdoor venues will be permitted to host events, but social distancing and capacity limits will apply. Indoor stadiums, for example, can hold up to 1,000 spectators or half of their capacity, whichever is lower. The capacity of large outdoor venues, such as soccer stadiums, would be capped at 10,000 people or a quarter of the capacity, whichever is lower.

It’s a start, though. But it’s hard to imagine a flashback to sweltering sports stadiums or sweltering nightclubs. The FA Cup final in 2019 drew over 85,000 spectators to Wembley Stadium.

Certain activities aren’t possible as long as power limits exist. To break even, larger musicals in London’s West End, for example, must sell 80 to 85 percent of tickets.

The British government hopes that its Events Research Program would aid in a more thorough reopening. Johnson has set June 21 as the deadline for lifting all restrictions, though he cautioned on Friday that it may be postponed due to the threat posed by a coronavirus variant first discovered in India.

Johnson has emphasised research as a way out of the pandemic on several occasions. He announced “Operation Moonshot” last fall, a campaign to test 10 million Britons every day. Despite the fact that this did not occur, authorities are still searching for a new path forward, which may include testing prior to major events, vaccine passports, or other steps altogether.

Some of the experimental activities, such as a business conference and two raves at a nightclub in Liverpool, did away with the need for social distancing and required attendees to wear no masks. Fans at Wembley Stadium are still being told to keep their distance of three feet.

In that sense, it will be like a Major League Baseball game — if baseball fans were required to get tested and researchers were monitoring their behavior. Cameras will be recording footage and researchers have been dispatched to take notes. Are people sharing food and drinks? What does the flow of the crowd look like?

Theresa Marteau, a behavioral scientist at Cambridge University who is overseeing the pilot studies, was an author on a recent academic paper that discussed creating new norms at events: Perhaps fans could stamp their feet instead of cheer, or clap instead of sing.

“While it is a basic norm of many sports crowds that people express passionate support for their team, and without that the whole activity has little meaning . . . it may be possible to develop new and distinctive ways of expressing that passion (stamping, clapping, etc) that are of lower risk than shouting or singing,” the authors wrote.

Many scientists approve of the experiment, but they caution against reading too much into the results.

Using the lateral flow tests, which aren’t foolproof, makes sense for large events as the lockdown eases, said Adam Finn, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Bristol and a member of the Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization.

“You’re not aiming for perfection. What you’re trying to do is ‘re-risk’ the event. I’m in favor of giving it a try,” Finn said.

“Context is hugely important,” said Martin McKee, a professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “You can’t necessarily say you can do the same thing safely in another place where the prevalence is higher.”

With a brisk vaccination program and after a rigid lockdown, Britain has a caseload that is even lower than that in the United States, averaging a little over three new daily cases per 100,000 people.

McKee also said that while this experiment will include supervised testing, this is labor intensive and will require substantial resources. Otherwise, the system could be open to fraud.

“It would be wide open to abuse if testing was unsupervised,” he said. “You could test all your family until you get a test that comes up negative and bring that in.”

He said that, at the moment, there were still “big question marks” about whether Britain could reopen to large-scale events in the summer, given the threats posed by variants of concern.

Perhaps that’s why some fans at Wembley were keen to savor the moment.

“It’s something I’ve been waiting a long time for,” said Prem Patel, 24, who hasn’t seen a live soccer match in more than a year. Speaking before kickoff, he said he was excited to see old friends, cheer on his team and “do my bit for research.”

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