Olympics Q&A: What was the travel process like to Tokyo — and now to quarantine for 3 days? And ... what does aloe-flavored yogurt taste like?

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TOKYO — To entertain themselves during a mandatory three-day quarantine upon arriving in Japan, Chicago Tribune photojournalist Brian Cassella and reporter Stacy St. Clair asked their social media followers to send them questions about the Olympics, Tokyo or anything else on their minds.

Allotted only an occasional 15 minutes of freedom to run across the street to a local mini mart and buy food, they’ve had plenty of time answer. Here’s a curated sampling:

How was the border security/customs experience at the border, particularly in regards to COVID-19?

Not that bad, all things considered. There were endless forms to fill out in advance of our trip and we didn’t receive government approval to enter Japan until 90 minutes before flight, but things went smoothly once we landed in Tokyo. After taking a COVID-19 test and receiving a negative result, we passed through several more checkpoints staffed with friendly volunteers and were out of Haneda Airport in about two hours.

We waited about 40 minutes for our COVID-19 tests to come back, but there were comfortable places to sit and relax until our results arrived. It was the third of six required COVID-19 tests for us this week, including two taken at a clinic in Arlington Heights, Ill., where the staff all spoke Japanese and could fill out the requisite forms with ease.

As of this writing, we’re 4 for 4 on negative tests. Two more to go before we gain our freedom.

Did you have to show proof of being vaccinated?

No, but we both are fully vaccinated. Interestingly, we’ve answered hundreds of (largely repetitive) health-related questions over the past few weeks, but we’ve never once been asked our vaccination status.

Athletes also are not required to be vaccinated, though the IOC estimated more than 80% will have received their shots before arriving in Tokyo. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic committees has encouraged team members to receive the vaccine, though it’s unclear what percentage will be fully vaccinated when the Olympic cauldron is lit Friday. U.S. coaches and support staff have all been required to get shots.

As for our local athletes, we know the entire U.S. rhythmic gymnastics team, which trains in Deerfield, Ill., got vaccinated both as a public safety measure and in the hopes of avoiding a positive test that could sideline them from competition.

Do you always have reporters and photographers covering the Olympics?

The Chicago Tribune has a long and distinguished history of covering the Games, thanks largely to Philip Hersh, a legendary Olympic sports writer who repeatedly ranked among the most influential people in international sports. Hersh, who retired from the Tribune in 2015 but continues to write, has been generous to both of us with his advice and encouragement over the years, even stepping in a couple of times during our Tokyo preparations to help with credentialing and housing snafus.

Our team also has Olympic experience, with Tokyo marking Stacy’s fourth Games and Brian’s third. The Tribune opted not to send anyone to Pyeongchang in 2018, but we’re back now with a renewed commitment to tell compelling stories of our local athletes.

Are you covering any specific Chicago athletes there?

Yep! Our primary goal is to bring home the stories of our local Olympians that no one else is telling. We’ve got a list of more than 50 athletes with Illinois connections and we’ll get to as many of their events as we can.

How focused are the athletes on their game vs. managing fear surrounding COVID-19?

For many athletes, the testing and quarantine rules won’t feel particularly disruptive because most international events and professional leagues have implemented similar protocols since competitions resumed last year. The U.S. Olympic trials and training camps also had heightened safety measures.

“To be honest, I think a lot of it is just expected at this point,” said American volleyball player Kelsey Robinson, a Bartlett, Ill., native who won a bronze medal with the team in 2016. “We’re very prepared, we know the protocol, we know what we need to do to be able to perform and to play. ... I don’t know that anything will feel that different from what we’ve experienced in the past year.”

Is there a sense of apprehension among the athletes in regards to a possible bubble breach?

If there’s a fear surrounding the bubble breach, it’s that a positive test could lead to an athlete’s removal from competition. That has everyone on edge. When we met with local athletes leading up to the Games, many — even those who were fully vaccinated — specifically asked us to wear masks as a precaution because the cost of getting an asymptomatic positive result was just too high.

It was an easy ask. We felt the same risk and had already planned on wearing masks to our meetings.

How often will athletes be required to be tested for COVID-19?

Athletes are tested daily for the virus, with any positive cases moved immediately to an isolation facility. Their teammates — and anyone else in close contact with the athlete — are subjected to increased monitoring that includes testing, traveling in separate vehicles, training separately and being confined to their rooms for meals.

I read that the Japanese people were less than thrilled that the Games were going forward since they haven’t vaccinated many people. What vibe are you getting from the locals?

We’ve read the same, but it’s very hard to get a sense from our quarantine bubble. A recent public opinion poll suggested 78% of Japanese citizens oppose holding the Games, which is a jaw-dropping number just a few days before the opening ceremony. Most of our interaction has been with several hundred very friendly volunteers running the arrival process and the kind, but eagled-eyed, security guard stationed in the lobby to make sure we don’t break our quarantine.

Why has the vaccine rollout in Japan been so slow?

It only began in mid-February, months behind the United States and many other countries. Officials blamed the delay on a shortage of the Pfizer vaccine from Europe, but there have been other complicating factors, including a lack of trained staff to administer the shots. There is also some hesitancy here for vaccines made outside Japan, so the government required additional testing and research to help build confidence before allowing its release. All these factors have left Japan as one of the least-protected developed nations, with more than 85,000 people arriving here within the next fortnight.

Explain the “15 minutes of quarantine freedom.” Besides grabbing snacks like you’re on supermarket sweep, are there other things you can do?

The COVID-19 protocol requires us to quarantine in our hotel for three days after arriving. We are allowed to leave the hotel to buy food at a mini mart across the street, but we can’t be gone for longer than 15 minutes. We are not allowed to go anywhere else, even though we have to pass a really delicious-looking ramen shop to get to the convenience store.

It should be noted that our security guard isn’t kidding about the 15 minutes. She’s got a timer on her desk and points at it whenever we sign the form announcing our intention to briefly leave the building.

What are the rules or precautions you have to follow in the Olympic bubble in terms of masking, distancing, testing, etc.? How does that compare to Japan outside the Olympic bubble?

In addition to the tests we already talked about, we are masked whenever we leave our rooms and are required to wear plastic gloves at the breakfast buffet. We also have an app tracking out whereabouts at all times.

The general public — if they’re allowed in — must do a 14-day self quarantine. The biggest difference between our quarantine and theirs is that after three days, we can go do our jobs. But, like them, we can’t go for a run, take a walk outside or use public transportation until Day 15.

Have you tried the ramen that you can order via a vending machine at Tokyo Station? Highly recommended!

Brian had it on a prior trip and thought it was excellent! Though our hotel is a short walk from Tokyo Station, we aren’t allowed to visit anything outside of the Olympic bubble until after we’ve been in Japan for 14 days due to the pandemic rules.

Give the aloe vera-flavored yogurt a shot. It’s better than you might think!

Stacy made Brian try it after seeing this tweet. He thought it tasted very much like vanilla yogurt. Let us know what other local foods you’d like us to try. If it’s available at our mini mart, we might be game.

How do the horses get to the Olympics?

The equine athletes — as they’re referred to at the Olympics with great deference — arrive by airplane in the week or so before their competition in order to give them time to shake off the jet lag.

At the Rio Games, there were two veterinarians onboard the Boeing 777 in case of an emergency, and the U.S. team also sent a groom to tend to the equine athletes’ in-flight needs. Each horse’s carry-on luggage was limited to a large haynet, 40 liters of water, a personal bucket, a rug to ward off the chill and a small overnight bag with a spare headcollar.

Is the plane that flies the equine athletes called “Air Horse One?”

It is now.

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