Forty “social distance ambassadors” will monitor the U.S. Open grounds to make sure players and others are avoiding close contact and wearing face coverings — the U.S. Tennis Association bought 500,000 masks to distribute — as part of efforts to avoid a coronavirus outbreak during the fan-free Grand Slam tournament.
“We’re trying to leave nothing to chance,” Billie Jean King National Tennis Center chief operating officer Danny Zausner said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, “and make it as stress-free for the players as possible.”
The USTA announced Tuesday that one person, who is not a player, turned up positive for COVID-19 out of 1,400 tests administered in the controlled environment set up for the U.S. Open and another tennis tournament preceding it at the same site in New York.
The Western & Southern Open, moved this year from Cincinnati because of the pandemic, begins Saturday. The U.S. Open starts Aug. 31.
Two tests are taken 48 hours apart when a player or member of an entourage arrives at one of the two official hotels or one of the private homes the USTA made available for rent on Long Island. (Eight players chose the private housing option.)
The person, who is asymptomatic, came up positive on the second test and will be isolated for 10 days. Contact tracing will attempt to determine who might have been exposed.
“We expected this to happen,” USTA CEO Mike Dowse said during a conference call with reporters. “Mathematically, we expected to have a positive, if not more than one. So we did anticipate this and we have put very specific protocol in place to prevent this from spreading broadly. … Our No. 1 priority is to take care of this person first, and secondly to prevent the spread from going any further.”
Once the U.S. Open begins, a player testing positive would be kicked out of the tournament.
“This is all about mitigation of risk, lessening the exposure,” tournament director Stacey Allaster said.
She said about 350 players — roughly 90% of the field — already are in the “bubble.”
Among the elements of the USTA’s plan, described to the AP by Zausner:
— Similar to the on-site ambassadors, who will be split into two shifts of 20, monitors at the hotels will make sure people don’t leave their rooms for 24 hours after an initial COVID-19 test. “If they come down for whatever reason — because they’re young — a security person is there to say, ‘Excuse me. You need to be upstairs,’ and send them back up to their room,” Zausner said.
— Instead of individual cars ferrying players and others between the hotels and tournament site, about 60 buses will be used, filled to 50% capacity. One person will sit by each window and the adjacent seat will remain empty.
— Every room on the 40-acre USTA campus was measured and had its air flow analyzed. Some rooms were shuttered, others outfitted with filtration systems to rotate air and “meet hospital criteria,” according to Zausner.
— Arthur Ashe Stadium locker rooms that normally hold up to 300 people are limited to 30 at a time — and only players, not coaches or other entourage members. And players’ access will be restricted to 15 minutes or so, tied to match and practice schedules. “That’s a big sacrifice for (players). They’re used to hanging out in the locker room, the lounges in the locker room, spending quality time in there with other players,” Zausner said. “And that just can’t happen under this scenario.”
— Most training and massage tables were moved from locker rooms to outdoors, such as under the viewing gallery for practice courts.
— The player dining room’s capacity was reduced from 300 to 50; hundreds of rented tables and chairs were set up on the Ashe promenade.
— Sixty-four suites in the main arena, each of which normally generates hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue, are being assigned as personal lounges to the 32 women and 32 men who are singles seeds for the U.S. Open.
“For the players, this has to feel like a U.S. Open — like, even better than last year’s U.S. Open,” Zausner said. “The only caveat is that we’re building it for 350-plus players but not 800,000-plus fans.”