The officers of the BFHS are not medical professionals or scientists. We can only offer common-sense advice informed by the government’s official policies and analysis of the situation. The top scientists in the field have struggled to come up with a solution to the situation; it would be arrogant and foolish to imagine a group of fencing instructors can do better.
Thus our advice regarding resumption of HEMA activities in the present situation is: Do Not.
For the vast majority of us, historical martial arts are a leisure or recreational activity. The situation is somewhat different for those who derive an income from instructing but still the general principle applies: government advice is to avoid unnecessary contact with other people and for all we may be very keen to get back to fencing it is simply not a necessary activity.
At some point, ‘lockdown’ measures will begin to ease and non-essential businesses, leisure activities and the like will be given clearance to re-open. We urge our members to follow government guidance with a clear understanding that an activity like ours does not equate to everyday activities such as shopping for non-essential items. The BFHS feels that re-opening our classes should proceed ‘behind the curve’ as it were. Let us err on the side of caution – after all, the consequences of irresponsibility include lost lives.
However, at some point we must resume our activities – or abandon them forever. The question of when to do this is a difficult one – and if the officials of the BFHS had simple answers to the COVID-19 situation we would be advising the country on these matters! The best advice we can give is to watch what bodies engaged in similar activities are doing and proceed cautiously with regard to the specifics of our own equipment and practices.
It would seem reasonable that once gyms are open and sports involving occasional physical contact – such as basketball – are considered acceptable then it will be reasonable to return to the more distanced HEMA-related activities such as drilling and freeplaying with weaponsand with no close contact. It would be wise to follow the lead of British Fencing in this regard; their activities are similar enough to be relevant and as a national governing body they have access to advice directly from the government.
Exactly when it will be safe to return to activities involving a great deal of close contact such as grappling and wrestling is a more difficult question. Again, a useful guide might be national bodies involved in similar activities such as Judo. However, our activities are by definition not exactly the same as those of other bodies and thus require some additional considerations.
Swordplay and weapons-related activities are, on the face of it, more ‘socially distanced’ than unarmed and grappling techniques. In theory, fencers maintaining good measure will remain far enough apart to comply with social distancing rules. However, it is difficult to ensure this remains the case in freeplay even when grappling is not a routine part of freeplay. Instructors are advised to remain mindful of this when re-implementing activities – we must consider what may happen or is likely to happen as well as what we desire to happen.
The safest class activities to implement are obviously solo drills such as footwork or blade-and-footwork drills. Paired out-of-distance drills also give a high probability that social distancing can be maintained. Careful in-measure drills with weapons are next, then well-controlled freeplay with weapons. Any activity where close contact is likely such as grappling or armed freeplay where grappling is possible bears the greatest risk. It must also be borne in mind that the participants may be sweating, breathing heavily, and may forget the rules in the heat of the moment.
The best advice the BFHS can give is that instructors should implement activities slowly and carefully, with due regard to class control and ensuring rules are followed. There will be a natural tendency to want to get stuck in straight away – which must be curbed. It is not possible to say when normal activities can be safely resumed, and in likelihood the COVID-19 risk must be managed in the long term like any other.
A fencing mask tends to trap droplets, which are the greatest risk of COVID-19 transmission. It could be argued that fencing at proper distance in a mask is thus safer than, say, playing football. However, there is no useful scientific data on the subject, and at present it is not known for how long a sweaty fencing mask or glove remains a biohazard!
Face masks are becoming available for use under a fencing mask, and it may be tempting to believe this solves the problem. We simply do not know how much use such a measure is in preventing transmission during HEMA-related activities, and of course masks of this sort may cause secondary problems such as fogging of glasses or reduced oxygen intake. A mask may be useful in reducing the amount of sweat transferred to the inside of the mask – in much the same manner as the handkerchief over the lower face that was not uncommon in some fencing clubs in the 1980s – but the overall benefits of face coverings in HEMA are unknown. They may or may not be useful, but they certainly must not be viewed as a total solution.
One conisation that may not be immediately apparent is contact transmission outside of drilling and freeplay. Fencers may carefully maintain distancing then put damp kit down where someone else can come into contact with it, or mix kit. Physical activity of any sort inevitably leads to touching the face – wiping away sweat without thinking about it, for example – which can create an avenue for transmission that may not readily be apparent. The use of ‘club kit’ is especially problematic in this regard.
It is therefore to be recommended that all kit be cleaned or disinfected on a regular basis, and that masks and other potentially contaminated items be kept separate from the property of other club members. This is not really a COVID-specific recommendation; members should keep their own kit clean out of regard for others, and club kit needs to be kept in good condition. Care should be taken that products intended to clean kit do not damage it or leave a residue that can be harmful to users.
The UK government is using a 5-point scale to indicate the threat level. Level 2 is to be implemented when there are few cases and the pandemic is thought to be under good control. Level 1 indicates that the disease is not present in the UK. We could perhaps wait for level 1, but at some point we do have to return to a more normal lifestyle. Our advice is not to consider re-opening our classes until the threat level drops to 2 or lower, and even then to remain aware of the continued threat. As stated above, the behaviour of major governing bodies can be used as a guideline but each instructor must consider their own circumstances and those prevailing in their region of the country.