The Australian state of Victoria will lock down for five days in a bid to curb the spread of a more contagious coronavirus variant, meaning the Australian Open will go without fans during what is usually its busiest few days.
Authorities have identified 13 new cases tied to an employee of a quarantine hotel in Melbourne, who tested positive for the so-called United Kingdom coronavirus variant on Monday. Five of those cases were identified in the previous 24 hours, Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said at a news conference Friday.
Andrews that “this hyper-infectious variant is moving at hyper-speed,” and to stop it the government needed to enact a short, strict lockdown so people do not unwittingly infect others before they realize they have contracted the virus themselves.
“We are facing a new kind of enemy. A virus that is smarter, and faster, and more infectious,” Andrews said of the variant. “Until we have a vaccine, we need to do everything we can to keep this virus at bay.”
Australia has not yet begun rolling out coronavirus vaccines.
Play at the Australian Open, professional tennis’ first Grand Slam of the year, will continue but without spectators. Tennis Australia, which organizes the event, said it will enact its broadcast-only contingency plan and will offer fans refunds if they have tickets they can no longer use.
“Tennis Australia continues to work with the government to ensure the health and safety of everyone,” the organization said in a statement.
Tournament director and CEO of Tennis Australia Craig Tiley said players would live and compete in a biosecure “bubble” throughout the lockdown.
“The players will compete in a bubble form not dissimilar to what they’ve been doing right throughout the year,” he told reporters.
“In fact, this was the first event they played in front of crowds and now for the next five days they will continue to play and continue to compete.
“So those that will be allowed on site will be the players only and their direct support teams, as well as those staff members that are unable to do their work from home.”
Andrews acknowledged just how gut-wrenching these restrictive measures will be to the people of Victoria, who endured one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns last year. For months, Victorians have been enjoying normal, coronavirus-free lives thanks to their earlier sacrifices.
Tennis fans told CNN that attending and hosting the Open, one of Melbourne’s biggest events of the year, was something residents felt they had earned after so many weeks of vigilance. People may still be able to attend the tournament if the lockdown is not extended past 5 days, but the Open’s middle weekend is usually its most popular.
“Today hurts. Victorians know, better than anyone, just how deeply,” he said.
Andrews said people will only be allowed to leave their home for four reasons: shopping for necessities; care and caregiving; exercise; and work, if it is deemed essential by the government.
Shoppers and those going for exercise will only be allowed to travel within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of their home, unless they do not live that close to stores.
Most retail businesses will be forced to close, besides essential stores like supermarkets and pharmacies. Restaurants and cafes will be allowed to offer take-away service. And gatherings at private homes and in public are prohibited.
“By limiting our movement, we limit the potential spread of the virus,” Andrews said.
The Open’s hurdles
Victoria’s lockdown is the latest in a series of hurdles organizers of the annual tennis tournament have faced in their efforts to put on a successful event during a pandemic.
The tournament was originally delayed by three weeks, and the government mandated that players coming from overseas would be required to quarantine for 14 days. The initial plan had been to allow players in quarantine five hours a day to practice, but several people linked to the Open tested positive for the virus while in quarantine – forcing 72 players to undergo a more intense quarantine in which they were not allowed to leave their rooms for the full 14 days.
Then, with just days to go before the start of the tournament, a security guard in one of Melbourne’s quarantine hotels tested positive for the virus – forcing his close contacts back into isolation until they were cleared of infection.
That included more than 500 Australian Open players and staff, all of whom tested negative, allowing the tournament to continue as planned.
Organizers had expect up to 400,000 fans to attend the tournament this year in a socially distanced manner, around half the number that were at last year’s competition, and fans came out in force on Monday for the first day – relishing in the fact that they are some of the few people on the planet able to attend live sports during the pandemic.
As news of the snap lockdown broke on Friday, many games were already underway with fans getting their last glimpse of action for at least five days.
Notably, Serena Williams kept her hopes of a record-equaling 24th grand slam title alive after surviving a minor scare.
The American saved two set points in her match against Anastasia Potapova but recovered to win in straight sets 7-6 (7-5) 6-2.
Speaking of the lockdown after her match, Williams said: “It’s rough. It’s going to be a rough few days for I think everyone. But we’ll hopefully get through it.”
Meanwhile, Naomi Osaka battled past Ons Jabeur 6-3 6-2 to reach the fourth round of the tournament.
What happens next could have major implications for the delayed Summer Olympics in Tokyo, as the Australian Open had been mooted as a model, albeit a smaller one, for how to safely host a sporting event with competitors arriving from around the world.
Unlike Australia, however, Japan is struggling to cope with rising coronavirus case numbers. Cases have more than doubled in the past two months to more than 406,000, stretching Japan’s medical system to the brink despite the fact that the country has the most hospital beds per capita in the developed world.
Though Japan’s leaders have vowed the Games will be held, obstacles are mounting. The public remains opposed to hosting the event and Japan’s Organizing Committee needs to find a new leader to replace Yoshiro Mori, who is stepping down amid the furor caused by sexist remarks he made last week.
CNN’s Chandler Thornton, Angus Watson, Ben Westcott and Paul Devitt contributed to this report