Australian Open kicks off after weeks of drama and setbacks

Hundreds of thousands will be able to attend the Australian Open 0:50

Melbourne, Australia (CNN) – Thousands of tennis fans flocked to Melbourne Park on Monday to see stars like Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams at the start of the Australian Open, after a three-week postponement and great drama over the quarantine of players.

Spectators came in in force on an unusually cloudy and cold summer morning, enjoying the fact that they are some of the few people on the planet capable of attending live sporting events during the covid-19 pandemic. It is only mandatory to wear a mask indoors during the event, but many people were also seen hanging around outside with face coverings.

Many sporting events around the world have been forced to postpone or suspend competitions due to the virus and set strict attendance limits or ban fans altogether.

Organizers of the Australian Open expect up to 400,000 fans to attend the tournament this year in a socially distanced way, about half of those who attended last year’s competition.

“It’s pretty phenomenal what’s happening,” said Australian Pat Cash, a two-time runner-up in the men’s singles Australian Open, who now coaches Qiang Wang of China.

The presence of fans in Melbourne Park would not have been possible if Australia had not controlled its local coronavirus epidemic in 2020 with strict public health measures. The Australian government quickly closed its borders in March at the start of the pandemic, banning non-residents from entering the country and establishing a mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine for incoming travelers.

As of July, most people returning to the country had to pay quarantine, at a cost of around AU $ 3,000 (US $ 2,300) per person or AU $ 5,000 (US $ 3,800) per couple.

When Melbourne, where the Open is held, had a coronavirus outbreak in mid-2020, the Victorian government put the entire state in mandatory lockdown for nearly four months, one of the longest such measures in the world.

Australia combined its contact tracing with free and widespread testing. The country now has one of the lowest test positivity rates in the world, with 0.2% of samples testing positive in the past week, according to the Australian health department.

While other Western nations, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have reported tens of thousands of new infections every day in recent months, Australia has gone weeks without a single case of locally transmitted coronavirus. However, a worker at a quarantined hotel in Melbourne tested positive for the virus on Sunday, the Victoria State Department of Health said in a statement. The person worked at the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport, but the department did not say whether the quarantine hotel was connected to any of the Australian Open players or staff.

Australia has recorded fewer than 29,000 COVID-19 cases and 909 virus-related deaths, according to the country’s health department.

Experts say Australia’s success in containing the pandemic is partly a product of its geography, an island nation that can easily close its borders, but is also the result of strong government action followed by the majority of citizens.

Brendan Crabb, director and CEO of the Burnet Institute’s medical research group, said Australia has a population that is more receptive to following health advice than other countries, in part due to a long history of publicly funded health care. . While Americans in several states protested the confinement orders as a violation of their civil liberties, Australians generally followed the advice of the authorities.

Crabb said that while he would not have originally supported holding the Australian Open amid the pandemic, it was possible that the event could now be a “signal to the world” of what is possible when nearly zero coronavirus infections are achieved.

“This is huge, I am not talking about Australia, I am talking about the Covid Zero philosophy. This is a very robust way to live, it’s good for your health, it’s good for your economy and it’s also good for limiting the number of mutant (developing) viruses, ”he said.

So you have this showcase event that shows the world how valuable Covid Zero is. I think its potential is incredible.

Difficult decisions

Photos of the packed stands at an exhibition match in Adelaide on January 29, where tennis stars such as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal played, brought joy to fans of the sport.

“It fills my heart to see the fans in the stands. Well done Australia! ”Said Andy Roddick, former world number one, on his Twitter account.

But despite Melbourne’s success in containing the pandemic, the 2021 Australian Open organizers are taking no chances, and the event has narrowly avoided disaster on a couple of occasions.

Craig Tiley, Executive Director of Tennis Australia, described his team’s efforts to host the event as “Herculean.”

“We had to bring 1,000 people from more than 100 countries around the world on 17 charter flights from different cities to Melbourne, and quarantine that many people for 14 days and then every day the athletes, which allowed to leave the room for five hours, “he said.

Tiley said that to aid contact tracing, the Melbourne Park site would be divided into three sections, meaning that in the event of a coronavirus case it will be easier to know who has been to which area.

All event tickets are digital and cash payments are not accepted, all designed to reduce the risk of transmission.

There have been some tough decisions. In January, as players began arriving in Australia, several people linked to the Open tested positive for the virus while in quarantine. The initial plan had been to allow quarantined players to practice five hours a day. However, as a result of the positive tests, 72 players were told that they could not leave their rooms for the full 14 days.

The news sparked outrage from some competitors, who complained that if they had known about the harsh restrictions, they may not have come.

“The players were certainly uneasy,” said Cash, the tennis coach. “It is not a normal preparation, probably far from what they would normally like to have.”

Australian authorities, however, did not apologize.

“That was the condition they came in,” Victorian Prime Minister Daniel Andrews said at the time. “So there is no special treatment here… because the virus doesn’t treat you specially, so neither do we.”

Then, just days before the tournament started, a security guard at one of Melbourne’s quarantine hotels tested positive for the virus, forcing his close contacts to re-isolate themselves until the infection cleared.

That included more than 500 Australian Open players and staff, all of whom tested negative on Friday, allowing the tournament to continue as planned.

Tiley said her organization’s role was to make sure the health protocols were very clear and were followed by everyone.

“One thing we know about the pandemic is the uncertainty. And you never know what is around the corner, “he said.

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