The Australian Open, which officially started Feb. 7, had an ambitious plan to let as many as 400,000 fans into Melbourne’s venues over the course of the Grand Slam tennis event despite the COVID pandemic. That would have made it the largest group of fans to attend a sporting event worldwide since the emergence of the coronavirus.
However, COVID-19 had other plans, and a new outbreak has resulted in a five-day lockdown in the state of Victoria—and a resumption of players competing in front of empty seats.
As Axios reported, the lockdown is following an outbreak of cases traced to a Holiday Inn near Melbourne Airport that was being used to house returned travelers. The COVID case count in Victoria is currently at 19, which prompted local officials to order the lockdown and halt the entrance of fans into the Australian Open.
The report noted, “Life had returned to near normalcy in the state of Victoria, with bars packed full of unmasked patrons. But now, over 6 million Victorians will only be able to leave home for essential shopping, work, exercise, and caregiving.”
Tennis players, however, are considered “essential workers,” and the globally-televised event—considered one of the tennis world’s four major annual tournaments—will continue as scheduled.
ESPN reported that the “Victorian Cabinet met and decided the safest course of action was to return to Stage 4 restrictions and place the state back into lockdown, for a minimum of five days, meaning fans will be unable to attend the Australian Open until at least the quarterfinal stage in Week 2.”
“The U.K. strain is moving at a velocity that has not been seen anywhere in our country, and this is the advice I have been given by our health experts,” Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews said in a Feb. 12 news conference. “In terms of how the tennis will comply, I will let them speak, [but] sporting events will function as a workplace but not for entertainment because there will be no crowds.”
Andrews added that he hoped to announce a lifting of the lockdown by next Wednesday.
An earlier ESPN article, written on Feb. 9, noted that nearly 18,000 entered Melbourne Park to watch tennis for the first full day of competition. While that’s a fraction of the 64,387 who attended the first day of 2020’s event, it was part of a hopeful plan to let spectators in to watch a live sporting event.
The initial COVID plan was for up to 30,000 fans per day to be admitted to the Australian Open during the first eight days of competition, split evenly between the day and night sessions. Starting with the quarterfinal round on, that was to jump to 25,000.
Fans were directed to choose one of three zones in Melbourne Park, and they were required to stay within that zone during their session. While the traditional grounds pass, which allows fans to see matches in the outer courts rather than the stadia, isn’t being offered this year, some fan areas were open for attendees to congregate on the grounds, watch matches on large screens throughout the park, and purchase food and beverages at concession stands.
A Feb. 8 NPR interview with Australian sports reporter Scott Spits positioned the tournament’s fan policy as a return to normalcy and a possible case study for the rescheduled Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer.
“The world is watching,” Spits said. “The world is watching what Australia and the Australian government have done here. There could be implications for the Japan Olympics if they go ahead.”
Australian Open Tournament Director Craig Tiley, according to ESPN, asserted tournament officials planned for the possibility of reverting to a bubble environment because of the COVID pandemic.
“Play will continue,” Tilley stated. “The players will compete in a bubble not dissimilar to what they’ve been doing for the last year. Those that will be allowed on site will be players and direct support teams, as well as staff members unable to do their work from home. Those essential to the delivery of the event will be on site.”