MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Fans wearing masks returned to the Australian Open on Thursday to take in the Grand Slam’s semi-finals after the completion of Melbourne’s five-day lockdown to contain an outbreak of COVID-19.
Officials recorded no new cases of the coronavirus in Victoria state on Thursday, as Melbourne residents were released from social distancing restrictions.
Players competed at empty stadiums at Melbourne Park through the five-day lockdown but reduced capacity crowds of 7,477 have been permitted in each of Thursday’s two sessions and the same number for the singles finals sessions on Saturday and Sunday.
American great Serena Williams opens the semi-final action on Thursday on a hot day at the main showcourt Rod Laver Arena against 2019 champion Naomi Osaka.
Williams is bidding for a record equalling 24th Grand Slam title to match Australian Margaret Court.
Crowds were originally capped at 30,000 per day during the opening week of the tournament until lockdown started last Saturday.
Tournament organisers are desperate for fans to return after spending a huge amount of money to get the tournament up and running, including some A$40 million ($31 million) on putting players through 14 days of quarantine.
Most mobility restrictions in Victoria state were lifted at midnight on Wednesday, but masks remain mandatory both indoors and outdoors when social distancing rules cannot be followed.
While Australia has largely controlled the coronavirus within its borders, small outbreaks have occurred in the country’s biggest cities from quarantine hotels, resulting in short lockdowns.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom)