Athletes will have to be vaccinated – or face a long quarantine – take daily tests and wear masks when not competing or training. Applause is acceptable for cheering on teammates, not for singing. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will be sent to isolation and unable to compete until cleared.
Welcome to the Beijing Winter Olympics, where strict containment measures will aim to create a virus-proof “bubble” for thousands of international visitors at a time when omicron is fueling infections around the world.
Prevention protocols will be similar to those of the Tokyo Games, but much stricter. It won’t be exaggerated in Beijing, as China has maintained a “zero-COVID” policy since the start of the pandemic.
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Yet China’s ability to stick to its nationwide zero-tolerance approach is already being tested by the highly transmissible variant of omicron, which is more contagious than earlier variants of the virus and better able to to evade vaccine protection.
With just weeks to go until the Games start on February 4, more than 20 million people in six cities are in lockdown after recent outbreaks.
Here’s how the Games will work.
DO ATHLETES NEED TO BE VACCINATED?
Yes, athletes and other participants, including team personnel and news media, will need to be fully immunized to be allowed into designated Olympic areas without completing a 21-day quarantine. These areas will include the Olympic Village, game venues, other selected venues and dedicated transport.
It’s different from the Tokyo Games, where participants didn’t have to be vaccinated.
Participants are considered fully immunized according to the definitions set by their countries. Before boarding their flights, each will also be required to provide two recent negative tests from approved laboratories.
The threat of being sidelined by a positive test adds to the pressure for athletes.
Mogul skier Hannah Soar said she was avoiding contact with people indoors and behaving as if everyone had the virus: “We’re basically about to act like it’s March 2020 “.
WHAT ABOUT DAILY LIFE?
Upon arrival at Beijing Airport, participants will have their temperature taken and be tested with throat and nose swabs. An Olympics official who recently arrived on site told a press briefing that the process took him 45 minutes, although organizers note times may vary.
A bus will then take people to their designated accommodation, where they will wait up to six hours for test results to clear them to move to approved areas. Movement restrictions within this “closed loop” are intended to seal off any potential contact between Olympic participants and the local population.
Throat swabs for testing will be required daily for all participants. In Tokyo, participants spat into vials for antigen testing.
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Standard prevention measures are encouraged, such as ventilating rooms and maintaining a distance of around one meter from others or two meters from athletes.
N95 or similar caliber masks will also be required in indoor and outdoor areas with some exceptions, such as when people are eating or drinking. The dining areas will have partitions and the number of seats will be reduced to help maintain distance.
In spaces where distancing is not possible, such as elevators, talking will not be permitted. Staff will be stationed in key areas to help guide people and ensure protocols are followed.
WHAT HAPPENS IF AN ATHLETE TESTS POSITIVE?
In Tokyo, organizers say 33 athletes tested positive during the Games. Of these, 22 have been withdrawn from competition. Even with the heightened precautions in Beijing, experts say some positive tests are likely, especially with omicron in play.
If an athlete or other participant tests positive but does not show symptoms, they will need to self-isolate in a dedicated hotel. They will receive meals and be able to open their windows to breathe in the fresh air, but will not be able to leave their rooms, which organizers say will be around 25 square meters.
Athletes will be allowed to request fitness equipment for training.
People without symptoms can leave isolation after two days of negative tests. Organizers say positive tests will be considered on a case-by-case basis, but it may still be too late for athletes to compete.
Typically, organizers say the panel will consider those who continue to test positive for more than 14 days.
Those who test positive and show symptoms will need to be placed in isolation in a hospital. They will also need two days of negative tests to be released, as well as three days of normal temperatures and decreasing symptoms.
Organizers said athletes who recover after testing positive ahead of the Games will also be assessed on a case-by-case basis in a “more flexible manner”.
WILL THERE BE FANS?
Foreign spectators will not be allowed. As for local fans, organizers in Beijing say they are finalizing the rules for their participation.
It’s unclear how recent outbreaks around China will factor into decisions. But Tokyo Games organizers had also planned to allow some domestic fans in, before scrapping the idea due to a surge in local cases. The result was surreal scenes of athletes competing in empty stadiums.
Even if some fans are allowed in Beijing, their presence will be muted. Everyone is asked to applaud instead of shouting or singing, as was expected in Tokyo.
CAN IT WORK?
Despite the omicron-fueled surge hitting many parts of the world, including China, organizers may still be able to stage the Olympics without as much disruption as some fear.
Olympic athletes are highly motivated to avoid infection so they can compete, noted Dr. Sandro Galea, a public health expert at Boston University. And while it’s harder with omicron, he noted it’s no mystery what people need to do to avoid infection — take preventative measures, like limiting exposure to others.
AP sportswriter Pat Graham contributed to the article.
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