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A laundry room on the ground level of the W Hotel in Abu Dhabi was turned into a makeshift quarantine area, fitted with 20 mattresses. There was one person inside. Not a rider, or a member of team staff. She looked like someone from the hotel staff, or a guest. She lay in the far corner, sweating, moaning, clearly ill.
It was late Saturday, around 10:30 pm, 36 hours after everyone at the UAE Tour was tested for coronavirus and a day before most of the teams at the race would be cleared to leave their locked-down hotel. One staffer from a WorldTour team in attendance, who requested anonymity because he has not been cleared by his team to discuss the events at UAE Tour, was sent, along with staff from other teams, to begin packing up and to pick up some laundry.
“We didn’t go in the room,” he said. “But they turned on the lights. She was in the far corner. The person was really shaking and sweating. And it was just two minutes before they took us to the paddock to pack our stuff.”
Within the next 15 minutes, as the group of team staff stood and waited for a bus to the paddocks, the sick woman was taken away in an ambulance. Two days later, the team staffer, along with the majority of the pro peloton, was back in Europe. He self-quarantined, knowing he potentially came in contact with the virus. He doesn’t know if others did the same.
The situation in a pair of Abu Dhabi hotels locked down by coronavirus has been described as a quarantine, but according to those on the ground, it appears to have been anything but.
As riders, team staff, and media arrive home, stories of their ordeal in Abu Dhabi have begun to trickle out. Stories of entire floors eating together; of riders going in the pool together; of laundry rooms full of mattresses and a lone, sick woman inside. All of this human contact in the days after they’d been tested for coronavirus, but before they left the country.
“In the end, there were people infected in the hotel,” the team staffer said. “And, we moved around. We all could have [coronavirus] now, we just don’t know… when it comes out, can we infect other people?”
UAE authorities have not released the names of infected persons. There is no way to confirm that the woman seen in the laundry room had coronavirus rather than a bad case of regular influenza. But multiple sources inside the UAE hotels stated unequivocally that the opportunity for post-testing transmission is undeniable.
The timeline agrees with them. Teams were first tested for coronavirus late Thursday night and into Friday. The results of those tests, for most, came back on Saturday, in the late afternoon. Directors from each team had to find the names of their staff and riders on a long list of negative test results.
“There were 160 names on the list, it was missing maybe 100 names,” the team staffer said.
At the time, there was a rumor floating through the halls of the locked-down Abu Dhabi hotels that the original pair of positives weren’t positives at all. That there had been a miscommunication, someone fired off a press release too fast or mistranslated something, and that the UAE authorities were too embarrassed to admit it. How else could one explain the lax quarantine policy for most riders and staff? A policy that tested riders early but then allowed them to eat together, mingle, even go in the pool together, and then head off home days later?
Six more cases related to the race were confirmed by the UAE health authorities on Tuesday. Two Russians, two Italians, one German and a Colombian have also been infected.
The new infections bring the total number of cases in the UAE to 27, according to UAE health authorities. Five of those have fully recovered, according to authorities.
“For us, it was also like a ‘hehehe, hahaha,’ like a joke before,” the team staffer said. “But when you see a person separated in that dark room, sweating and shaking, talking like hell. Then you realize that it’s just not some kind of small thing.
“It scared everyone who went in the laundry room,” the person added.
Four teams remain in Abu Dhabi. They are the teams of floor four – Cofidis, Groupama-FDJ, and Gazprom, unlucky in their proximity to another suspected case. UAE Team Emirates is still there too, having self-quarantined. That team is believed to be the source of the original two cases.
“All individuals within the two quarantined hotels that had no direct contact with athletes and their administrative teams were examined,” UAE health authorities said in a statement. “Those that tested negative for the coronavirus were allowed to leave the hotel premises. Individuals currently quarantined will be re-examined and tested for the virus to ensure their utmost safety.”
Being on floor three or floor five, away from the still-quarantined fourth floor, did not guarantee a lack of contact with the individuals on floor four. And yet floors three and five are now at home. Normal quarantine practice would dictate that if the fourth floor needed to remain quarantined, then so too did everyone who came in contact with them.
“Our particular floor was where there were some suspected positive cases,” explained Cofidis’ Nathan Haas, speaking to the BBC. “The irony was that everyone on this floor, which is three of the 18 teams at the race, were actually dining together for the first three days of the quarantine – sharing the same buffet room and public spaces.”
The rest of the peloton, and all the staff associated with a professional bike race, are now back home. All underwent testing in Abu Dhabi on Thursday and Friday and returned negative results – they were coronavirus free. They then spent a minimum of two days in the hotel together, with the same riders and staff still under quarantine on floor four.
“We are in quarantine in my apartment,” the team staffer who saw the laundry room said. “Okay, my test was negative, but the test was done two days before we left and we might [have] been in contact with the person in the hotel who was sick.”