Chinese Olympics aim to keep coronavirus at bay with armpit sensors, robots, and more

The Yanqing Olympic Winter Village in Beijing is one of several “closed-loop” sites that will isolate athletes, staff and the limited number of spectators. (Wang Zirui/VCG via Getty Images)

BEIJING – Noodles will be served by a robot – one of many ways China aims to keep the Olympics free of COVID-19 as an estimated 13,000 international athletes and journalists descend on Beijing, China’s capital, for the Winter Olympics. Starts on February 4th.

Hosting the Olympics presents a formidable challenge to China, as authorities over the past two years have implemented some of the world’s most stringent COVID prevention policies. The country closed its borders to almost all travelers and closed cities due to a small number of infections.

The global rise in omicron cases has also jittered authorities. In nearby Tianjin – a 20-minute high-speed train ride from Beijing – authorities tested all 14 million residents after discovering a few dozen omicron infections.

However, the games will continue.

At the moment, we are running smoothly and everything is under control. So far, we don’t have any plans to lock down Beijing and lock down the city,” says Huang Chen, a health official with the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games.

Here’s how China plans to hold an event of this scale and keep it, ideally, COVID-free.

Everyone will live, work and compete within what the authorities have called a “closed loop.”

This episode includes all winter sports competitions and the training site in Beijing as well as in nearby Yanqing and Zhangjiakou and at designated hotels where participants and other attendees will stay.

From the moment they land at one of Beijing’s airports, all Olympic attendees will enter this “loop”, which will be carefully guarded to cut off any arrivals with more Chinese. Each of the 25 sites that are part of the loop has already been cordoned off with chicken wire and sheet metal.

Beijing Olympic organizers say they’ve also added amenities to locations, such as cafes and even salons where people can get a perm or manicure. Some canteens will be partially equipped with robotic cooking machines, including a robotic arm that slowly descends from the ceiling with a plate of pasta, to reduce human contact.

Custom cars will take athletes and journalists from one location to another

There is a private fleet of taxis and a shuttle service so that participants can navigate the various Olympic sites without interacting with anyone outside the closed loops.

The vehicles are regulated so closely that Beijing authorities have asked residents to avoid touching the toy vehicles at all costs, even if the cars have crashed and the people inside need help. In this case, residents are supposed to alert a special emergency ambulance system intended for road injuries related to toys.

Beijing will also reduce the number of regular vehicles on the road during the Games by only allowing cars with certain license plate numbers to drive on certain days in an effort to reduce traffic congestion.

Daily testing is mandatory, but that’s just one of the precautions

Olympic participants can skip the three-week quarantine, and all other international travelers must undergo when entering China these days – the quarantine of more than 10,000 people before the Games was quite onerous. The guiding principle is to contain any potential viral cases within the closed loop.

However, all participants will have to prove that they are fully vaccinated, tested before and after landing in Beijing, and then undergo COVID-19 tests every day throughout the Games. Underarm sensors will monitor athletes’ body temperature at all times.

Interviews with reporters will take place 6 feet away or behind panes of glass.

A volunteer puts hand sanitizer on his hands
In a test of measures to prevent transmission of COVID, a volunteer disinfected the hands of participants in the athletes’ village at the Winter Olympics late last year. (Zhang Wujun/VCG via Getty Images)

Even the spectators will be closely scrutinized

Unlike previous Olympic Games, China did not make regular spectator tickets available to the general public. So far, authorities have invited a select group of residents to fill the stands, and they will have to undergo a COVID-19 screening before each event – a procedure that can take up to seven hours.

Expressions of celebration are also very limited. Beijing authorities and the International Olympic Committee’s official guidelines for this Winter Olympics indicate that spectators clap rather than shout, cheer or sing, lest their exhalations spread the pathogens of the Covid-19 disease.

It won’t be easy to get out of the closed loop

Games participants are required to take specially chartered flights to leave the country to limit contact with the public.

For people who want to stay in China after the Games, getting out of the Olympic bubble would be like traveling from a foreign country to China. The 19,000 volunteers and staff serving the games will be quarantined for two to three weeks before they can go home.

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