SINGAPORE - Organisers of this year's HSBC Singapore Rugby Sevens are not ruling out holding the event with fans, with a tournament spokesman telling The Straits Times they are "proceeding with event planning... with spectators in mind".
This course of action, however, casts further doubt over the Oct 10-11 event's feasibility, given it is scheduled to take place just three weeks after the now-cancelled Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix.
National sports agency Sport Singapore said it and the sport's global governing body World Rugby are assessing the feasibility of proceeding and are monitoring the local and international Covid-19 situations closely.
SportSG added: "We will continue to work with our partners to prioritise the health and well-being of Singaporeans as well as the international and local rugby fraternity."
Staging the Singapore Sevens at the National Stadium will be challenging with travel restrictions still in place in much of the world. Although the Sevens attracted 57,000 fans in total over the weekend last year - much less than the 268,000 that flocked to the Marina Bay Street Circuit in 2019 - it shares a similar profile to the Formula One race in its international appeal.
About a quarter, between 23 and 26 per cent, of spectators at the Sevens are from overseas while the 16 teams that competed last year hailed from Europe (five), Oceania (four), Asia (two), the Americas (three) and Africa (two).
Infectious disease specialist Dr Piotr Chlebicki, who practises at Mount Alvernia Hospital, said: "I'm not sure whether international audiences will be ready to travel or whether hotels are prepared to handle the crowds.
"It's not just about bringing these people in, but also about making sure that everything else works, which in about four months, may not be the case yet."
Sports in Singapore have restarted after the Republic moved into Phase 2 on Friday (June 19) with locals flocking to stadiums, gyms and pools to exercise, but competitions and large-scale events are still not allowed.
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said on June 15 that it could take months before Singapore enters the third and final stage of its reopening, and even then, there will be limits on gathering sizes for social, cultural, religious and business events.
Dr Chlebicki believes that the best way forward would be to hold the event behind closed doors, saying: "Big crowds are a perfect set-up for transmission that we are not ready to allow.
"Who knows what will happen in October, but from what we hear about reopening in the United States where the number of cases increased soon after reopening, it's likely that it'll happen in other countries."
Should the Singapore Sevens proceed, some rugby fans here said they would be comfortable attending the event, citing confidence in the government's cautious approach to reopening the country.
Englishman Andy Watson, 53, who has attended three previous editions, said: "I only think Singapore will host the event if they are very sure that the health and safety of all the people involved in the event and the spectators are not at risk."
Financial adviser Loo Zi Jia, who has been to the tournament every year, added: "If there are safety measures that are properly implemented, then it should be okay to go for it."
Another issue is the readiness of rugby to return to the international sporting fold. Many in the game fear it could lag behind other sports in making a return because it is a full-contact sport, even with the resumption of the Australian Rugby League on May 28 and Super Rugby.
With this year's Six Nations still to be completed and the whole July programme of international matches in the Southern Hemisphere postponed due to the pandemic, rugby union faces the prospect of huge financial losses worldwide.
World Rugby approved 10 temporary, optional law trials to reduce the risk of the coronavirus transmission for the sport, which includes the introduction of orange cards in the professional game to reinforce high-tackle guidelines and reduce face-to-face contact.
If the Singapore Sevens, which the Republic secured rights to host till 2023 last year, suffers the same fate as the Singapore Grand Prix, it would be the latest blow to the local economy.
The F1 night race brings in about $140 million annually in tourism receipts while the Sevens' had a direct economic impact of $21.5 million in 2016, $23.5 million in 2017 and $27.6 million in 2018.
Founder of sports marketing agency Red Card Global R. Sasikumar said: "The F1 is such a huge global event. Just as a product itself, it's probably three or four times bigger than the Sevens. The Sevens is perhaps a bit more niche, reaching out to the rugby fans.
"These sports events are important in the sports calendar and you'll see that there is a remarkable loss in revenue for Singapore itself for the economy."