Life inside the closed loop of the Beijing Winter Olympics

ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA — I am currently sitting in a room packed with grimy reporters, I’m not wearing a mask, and I’m not worried about catching omicron.

My relatively worry-free lunch, inside a media center at the Beijing Winter Olympics, is courtesy of the Chinese government’s “zero COVID” strategy.

In order for me, and everyone else, to be sitting here today, each of us had to pass two sensitive PCR coronavirus tests before flying from our home countries to China. We either had to be fully vaccinated, or spend three weeks in quarantine upon arrival.

On my connecting flight in Tokyo, flight attendants checked our temperatures as we boarded the plane, then again as we sat on the tarmac waiting for a few late passengers to board.

At the Beijing airport, my airplane was greeted by a phalanx of workers in full protective equipment: haz-mat suits with hoods, gloves, masks, shoe covers and face shields. Then, another coronavirus test — one where the swab went so far up my nose I’m pretty sure it touched my brain — before we could collect our luggage.

Once a bus delivered me to my hotel, I was barred from leaving until my test came back negative.

The whole experience of arriving here felt a little dystopian and dehumanizing — both for me, and for the Chinese workers who are wrapped all day in layers of uncomfortable-looking equipment and foggy face shields.


Even after passing through that gauntlet, there are still other steps I have to follow.

Each morning, before I leave my hotel building, I stop in a room on the ground floor for a throat swab. I wear a mask indoors and, begrudgingly, outdoors — a requirement here — and when asked, I submit to hand sanitizer and temperature checks upon entering buildings.

The flip side is that at this international event, with participants who have traveled here from around the omicron-plagued globe, I can still step onto a packed shuttle bus without much fear of catching COVID-19.

Similarly, I take on minimal risk when I pull off my mask to eat at a buffet breakfast. And I feel minimal anxiety about infecting Chinese locals.

Those freedoms feel real and meaningful to me, having come here from a state that’s recently experienced one of the highest coronavirus case rates in a country with one of the highest coronavirus case rates. But they don’t come without huge tradeoffs.

While I can travel and mingle at the Olympics with relatively little concern, I can’t walk across the street: Participants at the Games are confined to the hotels, restaurants and competition venues that are part of what organizers call a “closed loop” system that’s completely sealed off from the rest of China.

The government is also investing an untold amount of time, money and manpower to make the system work.

Legions of volunteers are tasked with jobs like scrubbing down surfaces, COVID test collection and directing traffic. They’re stationed at nearly every door to firmly ask those entering to stop at the infrared temperature and hand sanitizing station. Huge amounts of personal protective equipment is being used and discarded.

But the end result is, so far, that the Games are going ahead with seemingly few coronavirus-related disruptions. And in spite of what feels like an incalculable up-front investment in these protective measures, the Chinese government is also sparing itself another set of incalculable costs — of the economic havoc that’s caused by the virus’s unchecked spread.

I’m neither an economist nor a politician; it’s not my job to decide whether this approach makes better sense than those taken by American governments.

What I can say is that experiencing what feels like two extremes — the Chinese approach to COVID and the Alaska approach to COVID — has made me think. About the freedom of movement I’ve ceded here, and the freedom from COVID anxiety that I’ve received in return.

Athletes have noticed, too. After months of taking extreme measures to avoid a Games-torpedoing infection — daily antigen testing, avoiding crowds and even quarantining from romantic partners — they’ve found a sense of COVID security here.

“Since we’ve all gotten here and settled in, we’re like, ‘All right, we made it. We’re still testing negative — we haven’t heard of people testing positive,’” said Gus Schumacher, an Alaskan cross-country skier. “So, I think we’re feeling pretty good about it. And not thinking about it so much.”

Nat Herz is an Anchorage Daily News reporter who’s covering the Olympics for the ADN and He also reported on-site from Games in 2014 in Russia, and 2010 in Vancouver.

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at