One player at U.S. Open tests positive, but protocols are ‘buttoned up’ tight

One player at U.S. Open tests positive, but protocols are ‘buttoned up’ tight

August 30, 2020

NEW YORK – In its effort to bring back Grand Slam tennis safely from its seven-month, virus-induced hiatus, the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) has adopted strict testing and behavioral protocols that run almost the length of the runways at nearby LaGuardia Airport.

Everything was going splendidly until Sunday morning, the day before America’s biggest tennis tournament was set to begin, when Benoit Paire, a 31-year-old Frenchman, became the first player to test positive, according to a tournament official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter. 

Paire, the No. 17 seed, was scheduled to begin his Open on Tuesday against Poland's Kamil Majchrzak. He will be replaced in the draw by Spain’s Marcel Granollers. His result was only the second positive in over 7,000 tests that began being administered on Aug. 15; a non-player had a positive result several days after testing began.

Paire played in a tuneup tournament in Flushing Meadows, the Western & Southern Open, last week, but did not appear well and retired after losing seven straight games.

The USTA is staging the U.S. Open without fans in a modified bubble that essentially keeps players and coaches in a controlled environment. (Photo: AP)

Tournament officials were conducting contact tracing to determine whether any other players were in close proximity to Paire. The French newspaper L'Equipe reported that Paire’s countrymen – Richard Gasquet, Adrian Mannarino, Gregoire Barrere and Edouard Roger-Vasselin – were asked to self-isolate in their hotel rooms after Paire's positive test.

The news was a jarring development for the USTA, which is staging the Open without fans in a modified bubble that essentially keeps players and coaches in a controlled environment for the duration of the tournament. After COVID-19 forced the postponement of the French Open and the cancellation of Wimbledon, Open organizers moved ahead cautiously, working for months on elaborate health and safety regulations and procedures that had to be approved by the New York State Department of Health.

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Asked if he were surprised at Paire's test result, Austria's Dominic Thiem, the No. 2 seed, said, "There's so many people involved in this tournament. The possibility that somebody is going to be positive is pretty high. I just wish all the best to Benoit. Hopefully nobody else is positive, as well."

Thiem said he was completely comfortable with the protocols in place.

"I think there is no safer place in the world right now than here. Maybe you can lock yourself somewhere in a cave or something, I don't know, in the middle of the sea."

Like every other corner of the sports world in the pandemic era, the 2020 Open bears no resemblance to its former self. Instead of 50,000 people cramming onto the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for Day 1 of the U.S. Open, there will be fewer than 3,000 – at the peak – none of them fans. The ranks of ballpersons has been reduced from 280 to 135. Print and photo media credentials have been cut from about 1,100 to 15.  

Everyone not holding a racquet will be wearing a mask and staying at least six feet apart; roving health and wellness monitors will be on the grounds to ensure compliance.

Each day before entry, every person has to fill out a digital health questionnaire and have a temperature screening. All 365 players were tested upon arrival, and had to be negative to get a credential. A second test was administered 48 hours later; follow-up tests are required every four days.

The USTA has even taken the unprecedented step of making Manhattan off limits.

That’s right. A world-class city is a long forehand away, and it’s closed.

Players can’t stay there, dine there, or even go for a socially distanced walk in Central Park. If a player posts an Instagram photo of himself or herself at Rockefeller Center, he/she will be invited to leave. Almost every player is staying in one of two Long Island hotels that have been turned over to the USTA, and players aren’t permitted to go anywhere but Flushing Meadows.

"New York State, and the residents of the state, have done a great job getting the coronavirus under control,” said Chris Widmaier, the USTA’s managing director of communications. “We know that this event has to be buttoned up as tightly as possible."

Austria's Dominic Thiem, the No. 2 seed, says he's comfortable with the protocols in place to keep players safe. (Photo: The Associated Press)

The biggest single sporting event to be held in the U.S. since March, the Open has long been the brassiest and loudest stop of the tennis year, a rollicking two weeks in Queens that typically packs in heat, humidity and the occasional 2 a.m. finish in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the world’s biggest tennis venue. Tournament officials’ hope was that the only noise that came out of this year’s tournament would involve tennis, but Paire’s positive test for COVID-19 scuttled that, at least for now.

The Open health and safety plan is based on four pillars: a three-tiered personnel setup that minimizes interaction between groups; rigorous testing protocols and contact tracing capabilities; universal masking; and physical distancing. Each credential includes an RFID (radio frequency identification) code that enables health officials to trace where a person who might test positive has been, and who they might have been close to.

Players and their immediate circle (coaches, physio, guests) are in Tier I. Media, tournament staff, officials and ballpersons comprise Tier II. Tier III includes other tournament staffers in food service, security, housekeeping, outside vendors and delivery people.

 “All of these (pillars) put together decrease the likelihood that someone is going to run into someone with COVID-19 symptoms,” Dr. Bernard Camins, the Medical Director for Infection Prevention for the Mt. Sinai Health Systems, and a member of the USTA Medical Advisory Group, told USA TODAY Sports. “We can’t guarantee it will be zero – nobody can do that – but by doing all this we can make sure even if someone tests positive, we can minimize the number of people who are exposed.”

Camins said there was no hard number for how many positives it would take to shut down the tournament; it would depend on the results of contact tracing. If there were an outbreak among men, say, in theory the women’s draw could continue, but such a scenario would be most unlikely, since players are not separated by gender in their hotels, dining locations or training facilities.

As recently as three months ago, the idea of holding a major event in a city that was the global epicenter of the pandemic seemed unthinkable. But then months of sheltering in place began to pay off, and New York had a precipitous decline in COVID-19 cases. In April, the city’s positive infection rates exceeded 60 percent on multiple days, and the one-day COVID-19 death total was as high as 813. At the end of last week, the positive infection rate was well under 1 percent, and there was a day with a single fatality.

On June 17,  the USTA announced the Open was on, having gotten the go-ahead from the state, and officials went about implementing their plan and working with the Department of Homeland Security to make sure there were no slipups with almost 2,000 incoming flights, a number of them coming from virus hotspots.

“It was a high-wire act to figure how we could safely put on a U.S. Open, because everything was constantly changing,” Widmaier said. “That made it nerve-wracking at times, but it was nobody’s fault. It’s just what happens when you are in a terrible pandemic that the whole world is going through.” 

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