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Playing Tennis During a Pandemic: From Social Distancing to the Possibility of Mandatory Vaccination

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Playing Tennis During a Pandemic: From Social Distancing to the Possibility of Mandatory Vaccination

After months of suspended competitions due to COVID-19, professional tennis is set to return in August in Washington DC. Meanwhile, many amateurs are back in the court. The world of tennis already looks very different from anything we have seen before, and the changes will continue to pile on, for professionals and amateurs alike.

Social Distancing and Disinfection Measures

The guidelines for social distancing, handwashing and disinfection, and use of masks are likely to continue to be in place for the foreseeable future. In the United States, there are both national guidelines and state or city guidelines. Before considering what might be specific to tennis, players should make sure they are complying with guidance or regulations applicable to their area.

For tennis players, the USTA has an extensive list of recommendations, including keeping a distance of at least 6 feet at all times, avoiding socializing on court after playing, and washing or sanitizing hands as soon as possible.

Petra Kvitova and Karolina Muchova

Petra Kvitova and Karolina Muchova “shake hands” with a racket bump after their match in Prague, May, 2020 | PHOTO SOURCE: EPA-EFE

The risk of COVID-19 transmission through a tennis ball is not very high — but it is not zero either. As such, the USTA recommends using the racket to pick up balls. Players may also consider using two sets of balls (with different logos, or from different brands, for example) and each player only touches one set, using the head of the racket or the foot to kick balls from the opposite set across the court, if needed.

Once they get underway, tournaments will implement social distancing and disinfection measures, unlike what happened at the Adria Tournament, which was cancelled after several players and entourage became infected with the novel coronavirus. Moving forward, it is likely than tournament directors will impose slightly different requirements from place to place, and participants and audiences alike will be required to comply with them.

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The possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine: can it be mandatory?

Starting with the law, some countries have the ability to make vaccination mandatory across the board. Recently, countries like France and Italy have been toughening up their vaccination laws and making more vaccines mandatory to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

In places like the United States, the decision to mandate vaccination falls to the states. So while agencies like the Centers for Disease Control may issue recommendations (as they do with masks or social distancing), each state will ultimately decide on whether to require vaccination and on what terms. The fifty states have for a while imposed mandatory vaccination for school children, so it is possible that we might have a somewhat unified vaccination policy for COVID-19.

Overall, many tennis players across the world (and possibly in the United States) will be subject to different rules to begin with. Some may be subject to mandatory vaccination and some might not, even before they make the decision to participate in a local or international tournament. And it is possible that some countries will require visitors (or visitors from some countries) to show proof of vaccination: this is something that already happens with the yellow fever vaccine, for example.

Can the WTA, ATP and ITF make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for professionals?

On top of this, some people have discussed the possibility that the WTA, the ATP and the ITF might make vaccination mandatory for those playing a tournament or even for other people involved in the matches (umpires, line judges and ball boys and girls, for example) or tournament management.

Petra Kvitova and Karolina Muchova

Petra Kvitova and Karolina Muchova after their final match in Prague, May 26, 2020 | PHOTO SOURCE: Reuters

They might face some legal challenges if they choose this course of action. Their authority to prohibit the intake of certain pharmaceutical products or substances is well established. But forbidding the use of certain substances is very different from requiring an athlete to receive a vaccine. This is not to say that, if a vaccine is available, players should not get it. All scientific evidence points to the contrary. But as most tennis fans know by now, many people still have doubts about vaccines, including Novak Djokovic, who explicitly opposes vaccination.

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Tennis governing bodies should therefore start working in ways that convey persuasive messages about public health measures that can help making competition safer. It would be good if they could involve players in educating fans about returning to tournament grounds and attending matches while social distancing is necessary. And while it might be too soon to know exactly what will happen with COVID-19 vaccines, it is not too early for the tennis world to become educated about them, even if they end up not being mandatory.

The bottom line

From a public health perspective, tennis is among the safest sports to play if participants keep recommendations from public health institutions in mind. At the professional level, it is unclear whether vaccines will become mandatory, but players should model social distancing and other prevention practices when they return to competition – and hopefully before too long the current restrictions will go away.

Ana-Santos-RutschmanAbout our guest author:

Ana Santos Rutschman is a health law and policy professor (who plays tennis) at the top-ranked Health Law Center in the US. As plans to resume tennis competitions begin to come together, many amateur players have questions about the requirements they might be subject to, as well as what will happen at the professional level — especially in light of the recent cases of COVID-19 at the Adria tournament.  She works on vaccination and public health policy, and is a former consultant to the World Health Organization on these topics.

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