January 12, 2021

Hello from the Nationals bubble!

It’s been a long and strange year since I last photographed an event, and I am feeling fortunate, but still a little nervous, to be here in Las Vegas at the U.S. Championships. It’s been stressful to prepare for this event—even more stressful than usual—and I am hoping that I relax more once I get to a practice and get back in the groove of photographing. In addition to covering events for ice-dance.com and other media outlets, I run a photography business that focuses on club-level skating competitions, so that has been on hold for the year as well.

I had the smoothest experience in the Cleveland airport this morning, taking less than 10 minutes to get through both check-in and security. Since I traveled a fair bit in 2019, I still have Gold status on American and was thankful that they confirmed an upgrade for me yesterday—not for the food and drinks in business class, but for the extra weight allowance on my checked luggage! I definitely needed some extra pounds, as I had to pack clothing, snacks, and gear for 12 days.

I thought that some fans might be curious about the bubble process, so I thought I would try to blog this year. I should have a bit of extra time, as there won’t be much of the usual socialization that happens when the skating family has a reunion. As a member of on-site media, I’m not supposed to have any contact with the skaters, coaches, or officials; we are a separate micro-bubble within the bubble. Only a few photographers were given on-site credentials this year; journalists will be covering the event virtually, so press conferences, mixed zones, and scheduled interviews will all take place via Zoom. If I want to listen in, I assume I’ll also be connecting on Zoom, despite being in the same building, which is great. I am totally on board with reducing the number of people that the athletes have contact with, to keep them as safe as possible.

The testing procedure for entering the bubble is a bit stricter than Skate America, I assume due to this event being longer. Everyone is tested upon arrival, and then we have to quarantine in our hotel room until we receive word that our COVID-19 test was negative. USFS is working closely with a local lab to process all of the tests. Meals are brought to our rooms while we are in quarantine, or in my case, since my arrival was at dinnertime, I took a box of food back to my room. This is all the same since Skate America, I believe. This time, though, there’s an additional test, done sometime between 36-72 hours after arrival, to ensure that there wasn’t a false negative. My second test will be Thursday morning, and I’ll need a third one next week before the junior event begins.

Once we enter the bubble, we stay in. USFS has rented a specific block of rooms that can only be accessed by a specific elevator; only people with event credentials may access the floors. Meals are provided at the arena, with socially distanced dining areas (we can also take our meals back to our rooms or eat outside). There’s no ordering in, as the delivery personnel are not in the bubble. The rooms won’t be cleaned during our stay, but the hotel set up an area on each floor where we can pick up new towels and toiletries and drop off used towels and trash. People that were here for Skate America in 2019 might remember traveling through the casino to get between the hotel and the arena, but this time, the hotel has opened a pathway through the pool area that is just for bubble attendees—someone checks our credentials before we can enter it. We don’t even have contact with the front desk of the hotel, since it’s located basically in the casino; we check in at the arena and if we have a problem to discuss with the front desk, it’s done through a single “point person.” So USFS has really tried hard to keep everyone insulated. Short of making people arrive early and quarantine for two weeks in advance, which would not only be terribly expensive, but impractical to ask the athletes to miss training time for two weeks before competing, it seems they have done everything they can to hold this event as safely as possible.

So here I am. It was a difficult decision to make to attend. I’m leaving my two-year-old and my husband at home, and my husband has to work, and we don’t send the munchkin to daycare. It’s also a lot more expensive than a typical event. While the room rate at the hotel is very reasonable, the cost of buying into the catering for the bubble is…well, let’s just say that it’s at least four times my usual food budget at Nationals, when I typically eat one meal a day, since that’s all there’s time for. And I also worried about the personal responsibility of being another body in the bubble. So to mitigate the risk that I would bring the virus with me, my whole family has self-quarantined at home since we decided for sure that I would be going to the event. I realize this isn’t possible for the athletes, since of course they have to train, and I think it’s a fair bet that most don’t have private access to a rink, but it was possible for my family, so we wanted to do our part.

Speaking of family, I got to my room just in time to FaceTime my daughter, Claire, before she went to bed. After a bit of confusion this morning when I had to leave her in the car at the airport and explain that I wasn’t coming home for a little while, she was very excited to see me. We played Peek-a-Boo over and over again, she made me kiss her whale lovey, and she asked me to read books to her, although she hasn’t figured out that she needs to turn the pages toward the phone. Maybe Dad will help someday this week, and we can all read together; tonight, I was actually keeping her occupied while he wrapped up some work on his computer.

I’m hoping that I’ll get a negative test result by tomorrow morning so that I can photograph dance practice, so until then, I’ll enjoy the quiet room to get some work done and head to bed early, since my body is on eastern time, and so is tomorrow’s morning Zoom meeting.

– Melanie