NICE, France -- Two days before the start of the pandemic-postponed Tour de France, the Lotto Soudal cycling team said Thursday that it had to send home several staff members after "non-negative" coronavirus tests.
The Belgian team said a mechanic and a member of the rider support staff returned "one positive and one suspicious result." Both were sent home along with their roommates, the team said, without disclosing their identities.
"Safety remains priority number one," the team said in a statement.
Lotto Soudal's Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan is among the favorites to win Saturday's first stage, which ends on the famed Promenade des Anglais in Nice.
"After months of intensive training, Lotto Soudal is still very motivated to perform well in this Tour de France," the team said. "The team hopes the two involved people recover well and that this Tour de France can go till Paris with healthy people."
Initially scheduled to start in July, the Tour was postponed because of the pandemic, which has killed more than 30,000 people in France. Organizers aim to shield the 22 teams inside what they call a "race bubble" -- opened only to riders and staff who have twice tested negative before the race, including this week at a mobile laboratory in Nice.
The Tour's COVID-19 protocol says teams will be expelled if two riders or staff test positive for the virus or show strong symptoms of infection. Race organizers said that scenario will be reserved only for two or more cases within a seven-day span.
The number of positive cases is growing steadily in France, including Nice and other areas visited by the peloton during the race's first week. Quizzed about the wisdom of holding the Tour, Prime Minister Jean Castex defended the decision by noting that "it's an outdoor event" and said the state worked hard with organizers to ensure safety.
"Territory by territory, we ensured that there are restrictions, controls to avoid massive gatherings of the population," Castex said during a news conference. "It's a difficult balance."
Jean-Marie Blanquer, the government minister overseeing sports, praised organizers for the "drastic" measures implemented.
"The Tour de France should be a sign that we can continue to live life and of the resilience of our society," he said, calling the race "one of the great moments of French life."