The Australian Open is in disarray. The government in Victoria is being battered by claims that it's one rule for tennis players and a different rule for the rest of us.
There's no special treatment here. Because the virus doesn't treat you specially. So neither do we.Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews
As Tennis World reported on Sunday: "There is a real chaos in the state of Victoria, in Australia, between tennis players and citizens, after the presence of two people infected with the COVID-19 virus was confirmed on the direct flight from Los Angeles, United States, to Melbourne, Australia."
Some players straight from the flight have been forced to stay in their rooms for 24-hour, 14-day quarantine because someone on the same flight tested positive. Some claim they never realised this would happen.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce complained that it was "bizarre" for Victoria to allow people in from countries where "the virus is raging" but not from Sydney.
What are the rules?
Elite players are in what the local Adelaide press called "VIP quarantine" at the Majestic M Suites Hotel before taking part in a tournament on January 29.
South Australia Health granted exemptions to allow the players to practise if they returned a negative COVID-19 result.
"We understand that these are elite athletes and we want to make sure it's comfortable for them, and they do need to have the training privileges," the state's public health chief said.
Other players have to quarantine in one of three newly designated quarantine hotels in Melbourne.
"These hotels will be dedicated to the 1200 players, officials and support staff expected to arrive in Victoria for the tournament," the Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said.
This would be the same for any returning traveller.
But there is one exception for tennis players.
If they have had a negative test and not been on a flight with an infected person, they are allowed to leave their rooms in the quarantine hotels for five hours a day to practice in a "training bubble", according to the Victorian government.
"To minimise public health risks, dedicated quarantine training venues have been set up at Melbourne Park, the National Tennis Centre and Albert Reserve for the exclusive use of Australian Open participants," the government said.
The training areas have socially-distanced running machines, for example. The 390 players would be allowed on courts to practice and then get taken to the gyms before being returned to the hotel and tested every time.
The same group of players would have to stick together throughout the out-of-hotel training. There would be no wider mingling.
It is not clear why Victoria has received flak for granting tennis players exemptions but South Australia not (though it's true that there are far fewer being given special treatment in Adelaide's elite group than in Melbourne's non-elite group).
The extra problem
Some players arriving in Melbourne and confined to their rooms without access to training beyond knocking a ball against a hotel room wall say they were never told that this might happen.
Premier Daniel Andrews is adamant that they were told: "The rules apply to them as they apply to everybody else, and they were all briefed on that before they came.
"There's no special treatment here. Because the virus doesn't treat you specially. So neither do we."
Why the exception for tennis players?
Mr Andrews said that if the tournament had been cancelled, it would have been moved to Japan or some other country and might never return.
It has to be said that much scorn has been poured on this assertion.
But economics has come into play.
The state's Chamber of Commerce and Industry praised a "pragmatic and responsible" approach from the government: "The flow-on effects for our visitor economy and global reputation are enormous and a welcome boost for Victorian businesses and workers that have done it so hard throughout COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions."
Victoria's Minister for Police and Emergency Services, Lisa Neville, said: "The Australian Open is an iconic Melbourne event - and while we're excited to welcome the international tennis community back to Victoria, these rules have been developed to keep both participants and the community safe."
Tennis Australia said that last year's tournament "put $387.7 million into the Victorian economy - up more than 12 percent from $347.2 million in 2019."
"These are big numbers that boost so many industries, particularly the hospitality, events and tourism sector, all of which have been particularly hard-hit, firstly by the devastating bushfires in December and January, and this year during the pandemic," Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley said.
But that was pre-COVID
About 750,000 tickets were sold in each of the last two years. That will be down this year - but not to zero. Tennis Australia announced in December that ticket sales would be at 25 per cent capacity.
The global television audience will not be down. It may even be higher because of lockdowns.
Last year, the tournament was beamed to more than 215 countries and 900 million homes. It is the only Australian event to attract a global audience.
At the venue this year, spectators will not be able to mingle between three different "zones" but they will be able to mix within each zone.
The sales pitch makes it clear that COVID doesn't mean isolation: "Courtside with the stars, presented by Piper-Heidsieck: On Court Seating is the ultimate experience, sitting on the court meters away from all of the action. On Court Seating not only includes your seat but also gaining exclusive access to world class on site dining."