Crowds will be barred from the Australian Open as Melbourne heads into a hard five-day lockdown in response to the Holiday Inn Covid-19 cluster, but play will continue as scheduled.
The Victorian government on Friday announced the tough measures, which come into force from 11.59pm AEDT and mandate the entire state enters stage 4 lockdown.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, said the protocols would be put into place following the discovery of the “hyper-infectious” UK strain of the virus that can be transmitted very quickly.
The new “circuit-breaker” rules class professional athletes as essential workers and stipulate that sporting venues hosting professional events can remain open with key staff present to ensure the safe running of the event. But no spectators are allowed.
“Large and small professional sport events, they will function essentially as a workplace,” Andrews said. “But they will not function as an entertainment event, because there will be no crowds. And the workforce will be the minimum that is needed in order for that to be Covid-safe and safe in lots of other contexts.”
It means from Saturday – traditionally one of the most popular days of the tournament – all remaining matches up to and including the men’s and women’s quarter-finals will be played behind closed doors.
Should the measures be scaled back after the initial five-day period, fans could be allowed back in time for the women’s semi-finals and one of the men’s semis on Thursday next week. The women’s final is scheduled for Saturday evening next week, and the men’s decider for the Sunday.
Tennis Australia’s chief executive, Craig Tiley, said the players would operate in a bubble for the next five days, but otherwise would be under the same restrictions as the rest of the population of Victoria when not at Melbourne Park.
“Play will continue and players will compete in a bubble form not dissimilar to what they’ve been doing right throughout the year,” Tiley said. “Those who will be allowed on site will be players and their direct support teams as well as those staff members who are unable to do their work from home.
“They come on site, remain on site. When they are finished on site they go in transport to their place of residence and they stay in their place of residence until they come back on site.”
Serena Williams, the women’s No 10 seed, expects the new measures to impact the players, but fully supported the decision to lock down.
“It’s rough,” Williams said after her third-round win on Friday. “It’s going to be a rough few days for I think everyone, but we’ll hopefully get through it. But, you know what, at the end of the day we have to do what’s best. Hopefully it will be all right.”
Crowd favourite Nick Kyrgios plays Dominic Thiem on Friday night and the eagerly anticipated match-up will be among the last to be played in front of crowds for the immediate future.
Andrews would not be drawn on the prospect of the third-round clash going to five sets, and fans having to leave before the end of the match in order to get home in time for the midnight curfew.
But he urged Victorians with plans outside their households on Friday night to be sensible in their decision making.
“I hope people will use common sense and good judgment and perhaps not go out tonight, as they had planned to do,” Andrews said.
TA said it would continue to work with the government to ensure the health and safety of everyone as the tournament progresses.
Many players have spoken of their delight at being able to play in front of spectators so far this Open, following the best part of a year competing in empty stadiums due to the pandemic.
A cap of 30,000 fans per day – around 50% of the usual attendance figure – had been enforced since the year’s first grand slam began on Monday, although crowd numbers have been well below that capacity – just 76,213 have been through the turnstiles across the first four days.
Those with tickets for the next five days will be able to apply for a full refund, TA said.