Sports, major events and COVID-19: What should event organisers be doing?

Last updated: 12.45pm on Friday, 20 March 2020

COVID-19 is disrupting events all around the world

COVID-19 is causing disruption to sports and other events around the world.  In the United States, the NBA has been put on hold, the Players’ Championship and other PGA events have been cancelled, and cancellations and postponements have occurred in motor racing, baseball and a host of other sports.  In Australia, the Grand Prix in Melbourne has been cancelled, with cancellations and postponements also in cricket, rugby and rugby league.  European football and rugby games have been postponed or cancelled, and large international events such as the Geneva Motor Show, the New York Motor Show and Baselworld have also been postponed or cancelled.

Governments, including our own, have also put strict travel bans, restrictions, and requirements for isolation in place that will have an effect on the ability for sports and other events to continue.  This is already impacting Super Rugby, the NRL and other trans-Tasman sporting competitions.

Furthermore, the Government has directed that all events where more than 500 people will be together in one location (or 100 people if the event is indoors) must be cancelled.

If you are responsible for a sporting or other significant event, what are your obligations in relation to COVID-19, and what are the things you need to be thinking about?

What do I need to be doing?

If you are running an event where you expect more than 500 people to attend (including workers, participants and spectators), or 100 people if the event is indoors,  then the Government's announcements means you must now cancel that event.  Whether you cancel the event outright or postpone the event until such time as large gatherings are permitted, will be a matter for you, but note that postponement may create difficulties for you moving forward given it is impossible to predict when restrictions on large gatherings will be lifted.

If your event is below the 500 or 100 attendee mark, or if those restrictions are later lifted and you are considering whether or not to continue with a larger event, then a good starting point for your considerations is a focus on the health and safety of all of the people that will be involved in your event – this includes athletes, artists, workers, and spectators.

Under New Zealand law, event organisers will almost certainly be classed as a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.  As a PCBU, you will have a duty to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of anyone connected to your event.

But what does this mean in practice?  What is “reasonably practicable”?

The starting point is compliance with any legal directives, or guidance from government agencies.  For COVID-19, a good starting point is guidance issued by the Ministry of Health.  If you are proceeding with an event you should focus on:

  • reminding the public and event workers not to attend if they are feeling unwell;
  • reminding the public and event workers not to attend if they are required to be self-isolating in accordance with government guidelines;
  • ensuring your emergency management plan is up to date;
  • recording attendee details and (if possible) seating plans; and
  • briefing your event staff on how to practice good hygiene and making it easy for staff and attendees to practice good hygiene.

It is critical that you monitor government guidance as it may change at any time.

A second important source of guidance is any industry body or any international federation or governing body guidance.  The New Zealand Events Association (NZEA) is a good source of guidance at the industry level.  Its updates in relation to COVID-19 are found on its news page.  International sporting organisations have been slow to take a position on what their member organisations should be doing in respect of COVID-19, instead making specific decisions about specific events that they are involved in.  This should not stop you contacting your governing body, at either the national or international level, and asking for their direction or guidance.  If no information is provided, then that may itself be helpful for you for managing the consequences of your decisions (something we discuss further below).

Ultimately you must make your own assessment and decisions

Whatever guidance is issued by the Government, or by other organisation, it is critical you undertake your own analysis of the risks associated with your event, and make your own decisions regarding how those risks can be appropriately managed given the particular circumstances of your event.

It is important you clearly document your risk assessment and your decision making, and it is critical that you clearly communicate with all of your stakeholders how your event  is responding to the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Review and plan for the consequences of your decisions

Whatever decision you make about your event, there are going to be potential consequences.  Postponement or cancellation of an event will cause disruption to suppliers, participants, and spectators. A decision to go ahead with an event will also raise questions, particularly if others involved elect not to participate.  It is critical you understand what your position is in relation to others, in terms of:

  • contracts – carefully review the contracts you have in place with other parties to assess what, if any, liability might arise for you, or others, as a result of whatever action you decide to take;
  • refunds – partial or full refunds may need to be provided to people proposing to attend your event, who have paid to do so. Precise obligations in this regard will depend on the terms and conditions of the ticket sale, as well as the circumstances leading to the postponement or cancellation;
  • statutory liability – you may have statutory obligations beyond that contained under health and safety legislation, ensure you understand what those obligations are and how your position is affected by the decisions you make;
  • consultation and coordination – under contract, and legislation (such as the Health and Safety at Work Act), you will have obligations to consult and cooperate with others involved in your event – understand what those obligations are and ensure you comply with them – coordination is also important at a practical level given the uncertainty and confusion that is likely to be present around what people’s obligations and best options are;
  • insurance – it is important to understand what, if any, insurance policies are in place that relate to the impact of COVID-19 on your event; and
  • reputation – it isn’t all about legal risks, events which postpone, cancel or go ahead, will face potential reputational risk, including from poor communication to stakeholders, and the risk of illness or other consequences arising as a result of the event going ahead or otherwise – oftentimes the best way to manage those reputational risks is clear and upfront communication to stakeholders about the decision made, and the reasons for it.

You should already have a team in place considering what you should be doing, what the consequences of your decisions will be, and communicating with stakeholders.  If you do not, then we recommend you establish a team to progress these matters as soon as possible.  We also recommend you seek legal advice in relation to your obligations and liabilities.

Managing this issue will not be easy.  It is an unprecedented global health event, with multiple and changing societal, governmental and trans-national factors at play.  One thing is certain though – COVID-19 is a real and significant risk to your organisation and any event you are running.  If you we can assist you in any way to manage your risks in this regard, do not hesitate to contact one of our experts.

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