BEIJING – Guards in biohazard gear, ready to stop anyone from leaving. Athletes giving interviews behind plastic walls, speaking through microphones. Underarm thermometers all day long, with tiny transmitters to sound the alarm if someone develops a fever.
Six months before the Beijing Winter Olympics, Chinese authorities are planning elaborate precautions against Covid-19. The measures are expected to go far beyond those taken at the Tokyo Games, which ended Sunday with more than 400 infections reported.
China has made it clear that containing the virus is its top priority. On July 30, as the number of cases rose in Tokyo, organizers in Beijing announced plans to redesign their 39 Olympic venues. Workers are now dividing the passageways lengthwise and installing new toilets and other facilities.
The design changes are supposed to ensure that athletes have virtually no contact with referees, spectators or journalists, groups who will also be separated from each other. The goal is to minimize cross infections.
“These additional epidemic prevention measures are not very important in terms of construction scale, not difficult in terms of construction difficulties,” said Liu Yumin, an official of the Beijing Olympics organizing committee. . “All sites will be delivered on time. “
China has taken a zero-tolerance approach to the coronavirus since it largely brought it under control last year. Borders are almost completely sealed, and the authoritarian government has quelled sporadic epidemics by locking down entire towns and mobilizing large numbers of people to test and trace infections. The scattered outbreaks of the Delta variant in recent days have worried officials even more than usual.
In Tokyo, authorities have banned nearly all Olympic spectators and asked overseas participants to stay at designated hotels and take special buses to events. But the application was haphazard and the media noted numerous violations. Residents of Japan, who were allowed to travel from their homes to the Olympic “bubble”, accounted for about two-thirds of the infections reported at the Games.
China is considering a stricter approach. For the Winter Games, which will be held February 4-20, authorities plan to isolate the 1.4 billion Chinese from nearly all athletes, judges, drivers, guides, journalists and others. associated with the event.
By the end of the Games, virtually everyone involved will have to leave China or undergo several weeks of total isolation in government-run quarantine centers, undergoing extensive medical tests, according to people familiar with Beijing’s preparations.
This will include thousands of Chinese employees, who will have to live in the bubble for the duration of the Games, then “reenter” the rest of China after a long quarantine. No decision has been announced on vaccination requirements for participation in the Games, or on shorter quarantines for people arriving for the Olympics from abroad.
China will see the Games as a success if they unify the nation and bolster its global image without causing epidemics, especially outside the bubble, said people familiar with the planning, who insisted on anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss the matter publicly. They said no threat of any kind to the health and safety of the country would be tolerated.
The organizers have not disclosed the full extent of the prevention measures, which will evolve in the coming months. The Beijing committee responded to emailed questions with promising official announcements.
But some details have been made public. Journalists will interview the athletes through sturdy plastic walls. The microphones will be equipped with protective sponges, to be changed after each maintenance.
Like Tokyo, Beijing plans to severely limit the number of people allowed to attend the opening and closing ceremonies. Japan has banned foreign spectators, but has allowed more than 42,000 accredited Games participants to enter the country. Beijing has already announced that less than 30,000 people, including accredited participants, will be allowed into China for the Winter Games, although no decision regarding foreign spectators has been announced.
“Simpler and streamlined Olympics will become essential due to security concerns,” Beijing municipal official Zhong Bingshu said this year.
No information has been released on the Olympic quarantine facilities. But, in general, the best Chinese medical experts have concluded that hotels, while comfortable, do not provide sufficient infection control. So they invented new approaches. For example, nearly 2,000 prefabricated and stackable metal containers for individual quarantines were built during an outbreak earlier this year in Shijiazhuang, about a four-hour drive south of Beijing.
The International Olympic Committee has largely avoided discussions about Covid protocols at the Beijing Games. At a press conference in Tokyo on Thursday, committee spokesperson Mark Adams suggested little had been decided.
“It’s very difficult for me to talk about the Games in February,” he said. “All I can say is that we will do everything possible to ensure that we can find the best possible conditions for all involved in the fight against an ongoing pandemic, which I fear will have most certainly quite significant effects on us in February of next year.
During the Tokyo Games, officials from various national Olympic committees exchanged information as concerns grew over measures China might take in Beijing. Most seemed to believe that the unprecedented restrictions they had seen in Tokyo would be next to nothing in comparison.
Some athletes urgently need to know what to expect. Board sports like sledging, skeleton or bobsleigh, for example, should be familiar with windy tracks that they will cover at dangerous speeds. On the eve of the Vancouver 2010 Games, a 21-year-old Georgian luge prospect, Nodar Kumaritashvili, was killed when he lost control of his sled in a test race, left the track and was killed. crashed into a support structure.
Britain plans to send a group of its sliders to Beijing as early as October. They were told to expect to stay there for more than a month under conditions described as “severe confinement”.
Beijing organizers have provided elaborate videos of the tracks, shot by drones, for teams unable to come to China early for practice races. Some expect Chinese athletes to do better in boardsports than they otherwise would, given the challenges facing their competitors.
Many people in Japan have criticized the decision to host the Olympics, fearing that visitors will bring more infections. Although there has so far been little public discussion of the Winter Games on the censored internet in China, the government is wary of public discontent and has every reason to try to assure people that the Olympics will not introduce risks.
China has touted its use of technology to fight the virus. Friday, People’s Daily promotes an invention used in Wuhan, where the virus first appeared: a robot that takes samples for Covid testing, putting a swab down a person’s throat. This makes people “feel more comfortable in the sampling process,” the newspaper said on Twitter.
The People’s Daily gave no indication that such a robot would be used at the Olympics, and the Beijing committee did not respond to a question on the matter. But China has tested a different technology that will be rolled out at the Games: underarm thermometers that stick like bandages and transmit a person’s temperature.
More than 600 people were fitted with the devices during an experiment at a Beijing stadium last spring, and one of them developed a fever that was quickly detected. “The site immediately activated the epidemic rescue and prevention mechanism and conducted a review of the epidemic until a negative result of a nucleic acid test was confirmed,” the government said by the following.
Keith bradsher reported from Beijing and Tariq Panja from Tokyo. Li you contributed research.