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Evaluating Wimbledon’s Response to COVID-19

As the first round of The Championships, Wimbledon get underway Monday, June 28, let’s take a look at how the crown jewel of the tennis season has adjusted to the pandemic. After cancelling the 2020 tournament, the All England Club is taking part in a special government program (more on that later) in order to hold the event this year.

Unlike our other sports articles—which looked at the entire sport— this article is focused on one event, Wimbledon. Tennis is an international sport that involves lots of travel. Each of the four major tournaments takes place in a different country (Australia, France, UK, US). Given the ever-changing nature of national policies and international travel protocols, there is far too much to cover if we tried to focus on the operation of the entire sport.

Besides, Wimbledon provides us more than enough for one article. So, let’s take a look at the oldest tennis tournament in the world and see how it has adapted to the pandemic. To do this, we have divided this article into four parts:

  • The size of the operation
  • Current COVID-19 protocols
  • Areas for improvement
  • The bottom line

Before we look at what Wimbledon is doing this year to keep its players and spectators safe, let’s take a moment to understand exactly what Wimbledon is and why it exists.

The Size of the Operation

The Championships, Wimbledon—also known as both “Wimbledon” and “The Championships”— is the birthplace of modern tennis. “Lawn tennis” as it was originally known, as invented by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield around the year 1875. Lawn tennis was designed as an outdoor off-shoot of “real tennis” (which is a medieval, indoor racquet game that can only be described quickly as a complex mix of tennis, racquetball, and even a little jai alai). Lawn tennis was added to the All England Croquet Club in 1876.

The first championships were held in Wimbledon in 1877. Spencer Gore defeated William Marshall to become the first winner. Wimbledon is one of the four major tennis tournaments and is the only one played on grass. The other three majors—the Australian, French, and US Opens—are played on hardcourt, clay, and hardcourt respectively.

The Championships last two weeks (when not rain-delayed) and involve nearly a thousand players, three-to-five times as many support staff members in the player’s entourages, over 50,000 tennis balls, hundreds of thousands of spectators, a press core of hundreds, and an event staff of thousands. As the tournament progresses through the fortnight, the number of players decrease while the number of spectators balloons. Each year attendance numbers hover around half a million people.

The tournament involves singles, doubles, and junior categories but the majority of the coverage is dedicated to the men’s and women’s singles. To be crowned champion, a player must defeat seven opponents in about fourteen days. The winner receives a trophy and $2.3 million prize. The runner up receives half that, but if you qualify for the tournament and lose in the first round, you are still doing okay. The first round losers all get around $50K.

Wimbledon is the only tournament that requires that players wear all white. It is also the only one to call its men and women “gentlemen” and “ladies” and the only one to regularly feature the British Royal Family in the stands.

The Championships, Wimbledon is a massive operation with an even larger reputation. This is the place where the greatest tennis players come to test themselves against history. It is the birthplace of tennis and the most storied tournament in the game.

COVID-19 didn’t care about any of this. The coronavirus tore through the world last year, killing millions, infecting hundreds of millions, and causing untold damage the world economy. You’d be forgiven for failing to notice that the pandemic also cancelled Wimbledon in 2020. But it did.

After over a year of planning, the All England Club is ready to host The Championships again this year. Let’s take a look at how they plan to do it.

Current COVID-19 Protocols

It is important to note, right out of the gate, that the CDC still classifies the UK’s COVID-19 threat-level as a Level 3 (High). It recommends that all non-essential travel be avoided at this time. Despite all the precautions The All England Club is taking—which we are about to outline—the UK is still a high-risk zone for the coronavirus.

In fact, according the New York Times, if you were to travel to the UK from the US to attend Wimbledon you would need to clear several necessary safety hurdles before being allowed to roam freely. These include a negative test within the last three days to enter the country and a $290 travel package that involves a ten-day quarantine. It is still not safe to travel to the UK.

Safety is such an issue right now that The Championships, Wimbledon are not actually “back to normal.” They are open as part of a large-scale government research project that is looking at the feasibility of safely holding large events again. Wimbledon is one of approximately 10 “pilot” events of the UK’s Events Research Programme.

Before we get into the specifics of the tournament’s safety protocols, we want to emphasize that this may look like a normal Wimbledon, it might be covered as a normal Wimbledon, but it is by no means a normal, risk-free Wimbledon. This is a large-scale research program to gain valuable data for future events. More on this in just a moment.

Let’s look at the two main categories of safety protocols at Wimbledon 2021:

  • Player Safety
  • Spectator safety

Player Safety

Normally, the players stay in swanky houses not far from the grounds of the tournament. But this year, the All England Club—in cooperation with the government of the UK—are taking a page out of the NBA’s 2020 playbook. A mini-bubble will be established at the Park Plaza hotel. All players—and their staffs—will stay in this location and be driven to and from the tournament each day by a specific fleet of drivers.

This is not the nearly-impermeable bubble of the NBA’s Disney World Playoffs from last year but it is as close as the organizers could get. Instead of a “bubble” they are calling it a “minimum risk environment.” This is in keeping with the UK’s Event Research Programme.

Players will also be sent through a special, rigorous testing protocol that will allow them to bypass the mandatory quarantine for all visitors to England. Wimbledon has not made public the details of the player testing protocols. Nor has it made any public statements about any player vaccination requirements.

Spectator Safety

All spectators will be required to sign a consent form to attend this year’s tournament. Signing it, spectators acknowledge that they are part of a research program and they allow the government to collect large amounts of data on them through high-tech surveillance technology.

By purchasing a ticket, signing the consent form, and entering the grounds all spectators release the All England Club and all other organizations associated with the tournament from any liability should a spectator get Covid-19 at Wimbledon.

When it comes to keeping the spectators safe during the two weeks, the tournament organizers have required all ticket holders to provide proof of “COVID status” upon entry. This can be proof of vaccination (older than 14 days) or proof of a negative antigen test within the last 48 hours.

Guests will be required to wear masks while on the grounds but not when seated in a stadium. There will be no social distancing requirements for spectators when seated.

Attendance capacity will be restricted to 50% during the start of the tournament. Capacity restrictions will slowly increase over the two weeks with the semi-finals and finals reaching 100% capacity.

Areas for Improvement

On 23 Jun 2021, the UK reported it’s highest single-day infection numbers since February 6th. The UK is also dealing with an outbreak of the delta variant—a highly contagious variant of COVID-19.  As previously mentioned, the CDC currently categorizes the UK as a high-risk country for COVID-19.

Given all of that, we think it is not wise for the All England Club to move forward with its plans for 100% capacity during the final days of the tournament. This is especially risky given that they are allowing people to enter with a two-day-old negative, rapid test result.

Wimbledon is often plagued by rain. When it rains, they close the roofs on Centre Court and Court 1 in order to keep the main events from being delayed. When the roof closes, the risk factor for contamination goes, pun intended, through the roof.

It is already risky to have 45,000 people (full capacity at Centre Court) in close proximity to one another without masks on. But it is, in our professional opinion, too risky to have that many people in close proximity in an enclosed environment without masks on.

Currently, Wimbledon has not announced any special safety policies and capacity limitations should the weather require the closing of the roof. We think limiting capacity and requiring masks in the event of a roof closure would be prudent steps to increase safety.

Before we leave the side effects of rain on the tournament, it is worth noting that—according to Wimbledon’s own website— the Events Research Programme has only granted Wimbledon “pilot” status to operate through July 11th. While the roofs allow for some play to continue through rain, they do not allow the tournament to stay on schedule if it rains during the early rounds of the tournament as those matches are played on outdoor courts. Wimbledon has not announced to the public what it will do if, due to rain delays, the tournament cannot be completed by July 11th.

Other areas for improvement include:

  • Require Player Vaccinations: The World’s #1 Tennis player is a known anti-vaxxer and the source of an outbreak earlier in the pandemic. For the safety of all the other players staying in the “minimum risk environment” of the Park Plaza Hotel—not to mention all the spectators in the stands, especially if the roof is closed—the organizers should require that all players be fully vaccinated in order to participate.
  • Require Spectator Vaccinations: As previously stated, attendees of this year’s Wimbledon will be allowed to enter by showing a 48-hour-old, negative rapid antigen test result. They can and should do better. We would highly recommend that all spectators be fully vaccinated in order to attend. This would be a far safer tournament if everyone in attendance was vaccinated.
  • Track Immunity: As Dr. Hausman as outlined in a recent article, the best way to ensure that people are immune to the virus is to track immunity. This is possible through available testing procedures. Unlike infection testing (which tells you if you currently have the virus) and unlike vaccinations (which can only tell you with certainty that you have been vaccinated), immunity testing is the only way to be sure that people are currently immune to the virus. With immunity tracking, the All England Club could hold their tennis tournament with practically no worry of become a spreader event.

While Wimbledon is certainly taking steps to make the tournament safer, they could do more to make this historic event truly safe.

The Bottom Line

Wimbledon has been around for 144 years. It survived World War I and World War II. Centre Court was bombed by the Nazis on October 11, 1940. The Championships survived the Spanish Flu Epidemic and The Great Depression. It will survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

By requiring rapid testing results of all spectators and by putting all the players in a “minimum risk environment,” the All England Club has taken positive steps that improve safety. By working with the UK’s Events Research Programme, they have ensured that whatever happens at this year’s tournament it will be for the benefit of others in the near future.

It could do so much more, however. We think it would be wise to limit capacity overall, but especially in the event that the roof must be closed. The safety of players and spectators would be greatly improved if the organizers required everyone to get vaccinated. In order to maximize safety, the All England Club could institute immunity tracking to ensure that everyone in attendance and in competition is currently immune.

History could well be made this year at Wimbledon: Federer, Djokavic, and Serena Williams are all chasing records. Let’s hope theirs are the only records set and that COVID-19 doesn’t play a role at all.

Until next time, enjoy The Championships, Wimbledon and please remember to get vaccinated. For help finding your nearest vaccination location, please visit the CDC’s website.

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your doctor, and health & safety professionals before participating in organized athletics during a pandemic.