MELBOURNE, Australia: The Australian Open will be allowed to continue but without crowds for at least five days after the Victoria state government imposed a snap lockdown starting Saturday in response to a Covid-19 outbreak at a quarantine hotel.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews on Friday announced a five-day, state-wide lockdown starting a minute before midnight local time, imposing new restrictions that prevent residents from leaving their homes except for work, to shop for essential supplies, care or caregiving, and limited exercise.
Schools will be closed Monday through Wednesday, and there will be no gatherings permitted at homes or for sports events, weddings or religious services. Masks will be required everywhere.
Andrews said the Feb. 8-21 Australian Open could continue “because these people are at their workplace.”
“It will be happening, but there’ll be no one there watching it,” he said.
“I don’t have advice to cancel the event on the basis that it’s unsafe,” he added, saying the latest Covid-19 cases had nothing to do with the tennis quarantine program.
Tournament director Craig Tiley said the only people who will be permitted on site will be the players and their direct support teams, as well as essential staff members not able to work from home.
“The feedback we’ve had from all the players is they just want to get on and play,” he said. “They’ve been plying in a bubble with no crowds for pretty much a year now, so the last five days (with crowds) have been a unique experience for them.”
Serena Williams was in the middle of her third-round win over Anastasia Potapova when the lockdown was announced. She didn’t hear the news until after the match.
“I think it’s good that I didn’t know. . . . It’s going to be a rough few days for I think everyone,” she said. “It’s been really fun to have the crowd back, especially here.”
Grigor Dimitrov, who also advanced to the fourth round on Friday, said he feels fortunate the tournament is going ahead at all.
“I think throughout the past months and everything that has been happening, in a sense I feel like nothing can surprise me,” he said.
Fans arriving at Melbourne Park on Friday before the announced lockdown were instructed at the entrance to maintain social-distancing, sanitize their hands and pull their masks up over their noses. With masks not yet required on the grounds, though, many were not wearing them.
Fans will also be permitted to attend the night matches scheduled for Friday, when Novak Djokovic, Simona Halep, Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios are playing. But Andrews’ urged people to “exercise good judgement” and not go out.
Refunds would be offered to fans who purchased tickets for Saturday through Wednesday, as well as for those fans who didn’t feel comfortable attending Friday’s matches, Tiley said.
Tiley said he’s hopeful fans would be permitted back on site for the final four days of the tournament next week, provided the lockdown “has done its job.”
The Australian Open was the first Grand Slam tournament in a year to allow sizeable crowds.
After the Covid-19 outbreak became a pandemic, Wimbledon was canceled, fans were not allowed at the U.S. Open and the number of spectators at the French Open was heavily restricted.
Under the initial plan for the Australian Open, the government allowed up to 30,000 people daily the first week at Melbourne Park, or about 50% of capacity. The biggest daily attendance in the first four days was 21,010 on Thursday.
All players, staff and officials who arrived on charter flights for the tournament, a total of about 1,200 people, had to do a mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine. Of those, 72 were forced into a hard lockdown after being deemed close contacts of passengers who tested positive for the virus after landing in Australia, and were not permitted to leave their rooms for any reason.
Andrews said the new lockdown was a “short, sharp circuit breaker” in a bid to avoid a bigger, longer lockdown as the state combats a “hyper-infectious” strain of the coronavirus.
The cluster of cases linked to the hotel quarantine program at the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport grew to 13 on Thursday night, with five new cases emerging, including two household contacts of existing cases. These were the first cases linked with the cluster who had not been inside the hotel.
Australia has 909 deaths attributed to Covid-19, including 820 in Victoria state. Most of those were during a second deadly wave last year when a hard lockdown was put in place in Melbourne.
That lockdown lasted 111 days. All non-essential businesses and schools were closed, and residents were initially permitted to leave their homes for just an hour each day. A nightly curfew was imposed for weeks.
The extreme measures did succeed in stamping out the virus. Victoria had gone 28 straight days without a locally acquired case until early February.
Australia’s states and territories have also been quick to close their borders when outbreaks have occurred, which has also helped to contain the virus. Several states have announced border closures already for travelers from Melbourne specifically or Victoria more broadly.
Last week, play in all six tuneup tournaments was suspended for a day after the worker in one of the tournament’s quarantine hotels tested positive. That meant 507 people connected to the tournament, including 160 players, had to isolate in their accommodations and get tested for Covid-19. All of those tests returned negative.