Additional reporting by Aria Velasquez
EDITOR’S NOTE: Shortly after THE CITY published the original version of this story, the U.S. Tennis Association announced a vaccine requirement for entrance to the U.S. Open, by late-breaking request of the Mayor’s Office. City Hall had not responded to our requests for comment.
Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday evening ordered the U.S. Open to require proof of vaccination for all attendees of America’s biggest tennis tournament at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.
The move came just over an hour after THE CITY published this story noting the anger and concern of local politicians, ticket holders and park neighbors over the U.S. Tennis Association’s earlier policy of not requiring vaccine cards, masks or tests for spectators for the event.
After being closed to the public for 2020, the Grand Slam is set to be at full capacity this year and had placed few pandemic-related restrictions on guests before the mayor’s decree.
Vaccination proof is not required at outdoor venues in New York City under city, state and federal COVID rules.
But with mask and vaccine mandates in place at indoor venues around the city as virus cases persist, some local elected officials and ticket-holders had questioned the tennis tournament’s COVID protocols, in which masks were merely “recommended” and autograph-seeking discouraged.
Borough President Donovan Richards had said he was “outraged” to learn about the U.S. Open’s attendance policy.
“Queens has been of the epicenter of the epicenter, as Corona is one of the hardest hit neighborhoods. Spectators should feel safe when they watch tennis matches, not in fear of COVID-19. Organizers of the U.S. Open should immediately revise the policy,” Richards told THE CITY earlier Friday.
After the U.S. Open announced its vaccine requirement, he said: “I’m glad they reversed the decision, it was the right thing to do and we value the U.S. Open.
He said he would also like to see other major sports stadiums require proof of vaccination: “We can’t be hypocritical here, there should be one standard for everyone.”
State Sen. Jessica Ramos, a Democrat whose district includes Flushing Meadows Corona Park, had also urged the USTA to reevaluate.
“I really implore that the USTA considers taking extra precautions like requiring vaccinations or requiring masks from patrons and especially given that their patrons tend to be more well-to-do,” said Ramos. “I wish they could be considerate of the neighborhood they call home and that patrons or match goers are likely going to be walking around the park and possibly in our community.”
Councilmember Mark Levine, chair of the City Council’s Health Committee, had called the U.S. Open no mask, no-vaccine policy “extraordinarily reckless” and pressed de Blasio to act.
“We are running out of time. The tournament starts with spectators Monday,” Levine (D-Manhattan) told THE CITY before the policy was changed. “If the USTA will not do the right thing to protect their fans and New Yorkers, we need the City to mandate new policies immediately.”
USTA spokesperson Chris Widmaier in responding to inquiries from THE CITY on Thursday said that their planning and policies are “in accordance with CDC, New York State, New York City and our Medical Advisory Group’s guidance.”
A doctor on the USTA medical advisory board told the New York Times that the organization consulted with and received approval from city health officials. Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi did not respond to days of repeated requests for comment from THE CITY.
Following the announcement of the vaccine requirement, Widmaier said that “over the past day or so further evolution on what specifically qualifies as an indoor space became clear, so we needed to further adjust our protocols.” Arthur Ashe stadium has a retractable roof that can close in case of inclement weather.
Widmaier said ticket holders who do not have proof of vaccination can request a refund.
‘I Do Feel Safe’
Precautions against the coronavirus kept the stadiums in Queens largely shuttered to the public last year. Corona, the predominantly Latino neighborhood home to the tournament, was an early epicenter of the virus outbreak in the city and country at large.
Community transmission throughout the city accelerated in recent months bringing with it increasingly strict vaccine mandates for many indoor activities. Vaccines are now required for swaths of city municipal workers — with some pushback.
Sports venues like Citi Field, just north of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, have lifted stringent mask and tesk mandates but still require unvaccinated attendees to mask up, following Major League Baseball rules.
Despite the concerns from spectators and elected officials, there were also no plans to reduce capacity at the Open, Widmaier had told THE CITY.
The USTA “is very comfortable with all the health and safety measures, and the associated protocols, that are in place for the 2021 U.S. Open,” he’d added.
At this year’s Wimbledon tennis tournament, which wrapped in London a month ago, guests were subject to strict testing or vaccination policies.
Before the last-minute change, past and present U.S. Open spectators told THE CITY that they had mixed opinions about this year’s COVID protocols.
Danny Funaro, a 26-year-old living in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, said he was not concerned about the lack of requirements and that he plans to visit the Open on multiple days with friends and family.
“I do feel safe, even if it rains and the [stadium] roof closes,” Funaro added. “We’re all vaccinated and, I can’t speak for them, but I definitely feel safe and I’m not worried about their safety.”
Yet several others said that, while they’re still planning to keep their tickets, they were shocked by the event policies and concerned about rain forcing the retractable roofs on Arthur Ashe or Louis Armstrong stadiums to close.
Becca, a 50-year-old who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and did not want her last name used, said she’s been a regular U.S. Open attendee since the 1990s and that the tournament is a highlight of her year.
“I really assumed they’d at least have a mask policy,” she said, adding that she’s vaccinated but fearful of so-called breakthrough COVID. “If it rains you’re kind of stuck…. It’s either be inside without masks or miss it. And you’ve paid a lot of money.”
For key tournament dates closer to the finals, ticket prices soar into the hundreds of dollars. Private suites can cost in the thousands.
Forest Hills resident Frank Lang, 59, a former occasional attendee of the tourney, had said he was planning to steer clear of the No. 7 train line, which will be a primary mode of transportation for many spectators arriving to the Open.
He said that the USTA’s original rules showed “amazing thoughtlessness.”
Several Open employees told THE CITY that spectators are responsible for their own safety.
Delaney Middleton, who’ll be working as a chef for guests booking pricey suites, said that while she wasn’t previously aware of the COVID policies, that she felt she had done her part.
“I got my mask, I got my shots,” said Middleton, of Bushwick, Brooklyn, who declined to give her age. “If they wanna expose themselves to the virus, that’s on them.”
Tennis players are not required to be vaccinated for the tournament.
Like a Bad Neighbor
Several in the neighborhood had said they felt that the COVID protocols add insult to injury.
Ramos argued that the USTA has not been a good neighbor over the years, noting that parking for the Open takes over the park. In past years, the nearby Queens Museum has been forced to close for the duration of the tournament, although it has remained open this year.
“The least they can do is make sure they’re not creating environments conducive to increasing the rate of transmission on our streets,” Ramos added.
Gregory Spock, park committee chair for the area’s Community Board 4, said that the event has always been controversial locally. He said he was “appalled” when he read about the tournament’s COVID protocol online, adding that there had been no recent communication between the USTA and the community board.
“People have said this basically takes over the largest park in Queens,” said Spock, noting that one of the few tournament perks for the community was cancelled this year:
In the past, a day before the Open officially begins, the USTA holds a free day for families and children, called the Arthur Ashe Kids Day.
The week of qualifiers for the tournament, also historically open to the public, was closed off this year.
Both were canceled to “best prepare for the 2021 US Open, and for the safety and health of all those participating — including players, staff and US Open partners,” the Kids Day website reads.
“It’s not just one day as we all know. It’s basically a weeklong thing,” said Spock, 36. “The contact tracing, there’s going to be literally none,” Spock added. “It’s like we are going completely backwards.”