Neal: The Olympics started but I was sent back to my hotel
BEIJING — All the necessary precautions were taken. All forms were filled out properly, and there are confirmations to show we entered China safely.
My health status was updated daily on an app, created just for the Olympics, for 14 days before even getting on a plane for Beijing.
When we landed in Beijing early Tuesday morning, we were greeted by staff members covered head to toe in protective gear. It was time for an unpleasant test in which my throat was swabbed and my nostril was used as an entry point to drill for brain matter.
We were in the “closed loop” by then, an environment designed for media to cover the Olympics — and nothing else. Guidelines allow us to move around the hotel, bus to the media center, then travel to the sporting venues. We can’t check out the Great Wall of China. The Forbidden City is forbidden to us. This all was designed to allow us to cover the Games in a country attempting to enforce a zero-tolerance COVID policy.
But my coverage has been interrupted, just as it was getting started.
Team USA rallied to beat Australia in mixed curling Wednesday night Beijing time. I was scheduled to attend the match and opine about being at my first Olympic event. Instead, I was back at the hotel waiting for results of an unscheduled test.
I have not tested positive for COVID-19, but the person who sat directly behind me for four hours on a Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo to Beijing did.
That makes me a “close contact.” And that has landed me in protocol.
I have been tested several times during the pandemic. I drove back from Opening Day in Milwaukee in 2021 to get my first vaccine shot, then drove back to cover the rest of the series. Shot No. 2 took place 21 days later. I received my booster shot in mid-December. I produced negative tests twice before beginning my journey to Beijing on Saturday. As far as I know, I have not contracted the virus since the outbreak began in 2020.
Being in close contact with a positive case doesn’t worry me. Vaccines provide that comfort. Being a close-contact case 6,200 miles from home in a country in which COVID protocols have not been transparent is a little unnerving. I am, however, encouraged by two things.
One, the staff members we have encountered here have been very courteous, kind and helpful. They have made sure we are in the right spots to board the right buses. They approached me at U.S women’s hockey practice Wednesday and asked me which players I needed to interview. Many of them laughed and offered thanks when I wished them Happy New Year on Tuesday. It was the Chinese New Year — the Year of the Tiger. We have not been uncomfortable here.
Two, around 200 athletes, coaches and stakeholders (i.e. media) have tested positive since arriving last week. We have since seen pathways established for athletes to recover and compete in their events if there is time. U.S. bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor tested positive after arriving and is in an isolation hotel, but her event is later during the competition, allowing her to stack negative tests and get to her sled. There’s no evidence of athletes being isolated longer than necessary.
I now must test and have my temperature taken twice a day over the next seven days. I can’t ride the media shuttles but can arrange rides to the media center in private cars. And I have to stay away from people. Work alone. Eat alone. Try to spread out during events. After seven days, one test a day is required. After another seven days, I’ll be cleared to resume normal activities here.
It’s not ideal. But it allows me to be productive. My colleague, Rachel Blount, is well-connected and has provided tremendous support since we were notified of my proximity to an infected passenger.
And, I get it. I don’t want to contribute to any spreading of COVID. We’re all vaccinated, but reporters gathered from around the globe working in the media center don’t need potential exposure.
It’s their Games. It’s their rules. So, this dude will abide.