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On Monday morning, 30,000 people poured into Melbourne Park to attend the first day of the Australian Open. It is the biggest event to be held in Australia since the pandemic began.
Over the next 13 days, some 390,000 people – about half the usual capacity – are expected to take their seats in the stands. Almost 1,000 international tennis players and support staff have spent at least 14 days in quarantine for the chance to be able to play.
It feels as normal, and as safe, as anything in 2021 can be.
To international spectators, it looks like an alternate reality. The Super Bowl, which coincided with the first day of the Open, was played in front of a record-low crowd of 25,000 people and 30,000 cut-outs, and bookended by concerns that pre- and post-game celebrations could be super-spreader events.
No such fear exists in Australia. According to Melbourne-based epidemiologist Prof Catherine Bennett, the chance of someone catching Covid-19 at the Australian Open is very low.
“It is very unlikely that something will stem from this event,” Bennett said. “The tennis itself is as safe as it can be. The risk in the wider community is also very low … there’s such a small chance that something will go wrong and that you would be seated in the stands next to somebody who is positive for Covid. We should focus on absolutely enjoying the tennis, because that’s what the prize is for getting transmissions so low.”
The risk remains low even with two people who work in Victoria’s hotel quarantine system for international arrivals testing positive to Covid-19 in the past week. A case in New South Wales, where a returned traveller tested positive three days after completing their 14-day quarantine, and had been out in the community for five days before the result was publicly reported, is also considered a manageable risk. In a country which has put whole cities into lockdown in response to a single case, the absence of a harsh, restrictive response can be taken as a show of confidence.
“The Australian Open can happen because we are in a state with basically zero tolerance for community transmission,” Bennett said.
Tennis Australia’s chief executive, Craig Tiley, said players were still getting used to the sense of normalcy at Melbourne Park. It was hard-won – some players were tested up to 16 times, Tiley said.
Victorian public health experts say the chance of rubbing up against another spectator who is unknowingly carrying coronavirus is very low. Even with that low risk, infection control procedures are in place. Spectators must wear a mask to enter the grounds and while moving around, and can only remove it when in their assigned seat at an outdoor arena. The venue has been divided into three zones for ease of contact tracing. And the players and essential staff have been placed in a bubble away from the crowd so that even if something did prompt the government to close the venue to spectators, the tournament could continue.
“We’ve got processes in place here to protect everyone,” Tiley said. “ The weather is going to be great this week. It’s cool for February. And so I think for fans to come out and watch the tennis and feel comfortable and safe, this will be a good place to be.”
Bennett does not have tickets to the Open but says she would not be concerned about attending.
“As an epidemiologist you would say why have avoidable risk in the first place, if you can avoid it,” she says. But this is all about balancing with normal life.
“If anyone is going to be able to do it it would be Australia, and if anyone in Australia is going to be able to do it, it is Victoria because we are super cautious.”
The biggest risk of holding the Australian Open had already passed, said Prof Michael Toole, an epidemiologist with the Burnet Institute.
Bringing in 1,000 tennis players and support staff from countries that are in the grip of second and third waves of the pandemic was a significant test of Australia’s hotel quarantine system, and the strict approach taken by Australian authorities meant dozens, including world number one Novac Djokovic, were confined to their hotel rooms for the duration.
About 520 players and support staff were required to isolate for an additional few days at the end of their 14-day quarantine period last week, after a man working at the Grand Hyatt, an Australian Open quarantine hotel, tested positive to Covid-19. All have returned negative tests.
Still, Toole says he will not relax until the event is two weeks in the past and no cases have been reported. And, at the age of 74, he says he would not be attending himself.
“We won’t be able to breathe out until two weeks after the last finals,” Toole said. “We will probably know before then if there is a case [but] I won’t be completely happy about the situation until after it’s finished.”
Watching from afar, Toole said, the procedures on the ground appear “as decent as they can be”.
“I think on balance it will be OK,” he said.
The sense of safety comes from Melbourne itself, said Toole. The city has not forgotten the 112 days it spent in lockdown last year during a second wave which killed 768 people.
More than 77,000 people in Victoria got a Covid-19 test in the five days since the Grand Hyatt case was reported, despite the virus being eliminated, in epidemiological terms, from the community.
“Most people in Melbourne are still highly anxious about a third wave,” Toole said.
That level of community buy-in is a requirement for reaching an elimination, or near elimination, status, Bennett said.
“The community gets it and we are engaged here because we know that therein lies our freedom,” she said. “If you don’t have that partnership [between people and government] it just doesn’t work.”
To date, there have been no secondary cases recorded from either outbreak, and Bennett said the chance of those outbreaks being contained to single cases, or only spreading to people who are already in isolation, is high.
If we are lucky, she said, the biggest news in Melbourne for the next two weeks could be the tennis itself.
“It would be nice to get into the tennis enough that we actually forgot about Covid for a while,” Bennett said.
Source: The Guardian
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