Within two weeks, members of Indiana’s football team will begin working out together in small groups. In the days that follow, the men’s and women’s basketball teams will do the same. And by the end of this month, IU’s athletics campus, dormant since mid-March, will once again show signs of life.
There is no perfect plan for protecting athletes from exposure to COVID-19 once they return, athletic director Fred Glass acknowledges. But Glass also believes his department has drafted a blueprint that at least minimizes the risk and gets IU back on track to play games come the fall.
“We cannot totally eliminate the risk,” Glass said. “At least until there is a vaccine, there will be risk. What we can do is have the best doctors give us the best protocols and make sure they are strictly followed. That’s what we’ve done and what we are going to do.”
The plan Indiana unveiled Wednesday outlines what it considers to be the first phase in a staggered, department-wide return to action. It calls for voluntary workouts to begin later this month, beginning with football on June 15. Additional programs will begin workouts as follows (other winter and spring sports will be phased in once the fall semester begins):
June 18: mens, women’s basketball
July 6: women’s soccer
July 8: volleyball
July 13: men’s soccer
July 15: field hockey
August 18: cross country
In order to participate, athletes must first undergo a “virtual pre-participation history conducted by the IU Sports Medicine staff” to determine whether they have been or are currently sick, whether they have been exposed to COVID-19, how they are traveling to Bloomington, and whether they are at high risk for severe illness. Additionally, athletes will be required to sign a pledge saying that they will practice good personal hygiene and physical distancing, and agree to quarantine as necessary.
Daily medical checks will also be conducted, during which staffers and athletes will have their temperatures taken. Those exams will take place at medical checkpoints set up at the athlete entrances to Memorial Stadium and Cook Hall.
“We will test every athlete before they come back, and the idea is that there’s probably a 25 to 50 percent asymptomatic infection rate,” said Andy Hipskind, chief medical officer for IU’s athletic department. “Those are people that actually have the infection but do not have symptoms to warn them that they have it. So, with that asymptomatic rate we want to know that we are not putting anybody into the facility that could be an asymptomatic carrier. We also know that young people, because they seem to get the symptoms in a milder nature than the older population, that of that 25 to 50 percent asymptomatic carrier range, a majority of that comes from the younger population. So, they’ll be testing prior to getting access to the facility.”
Eventually, close contact will be required for games and practice to unfold. But at least initially, Indiana will try to limit the degree to which its athletes and coaches work in close quarters. The number of participants, including both coaches and players, allowed in a designated workout area will depend on the setting. For instance, the IU football team could send two groups of 10 participants to work out on the Memorial Stadium field, but once there, the groups would not be allowed to mix or cross the 50-yard line. The basketball teams, meanwhile, will not be allowed to have more than 10 participants on the entire practice floor at any given time.
For activities where maintaining distance is difficult or impossible, such as spotting or stretching, participants will be required to wear face coverings. All meetings will also require the use of masks, which will be provided at each training session. Signage will be installed across the athletics campus instructing athletes and coaches where they are to enter and exit facilities.
Water fountains will be closed, while high-fives, fist bumps and handshakes will be frowned upon.
“A lot of this is just evolving,” Hipskind said. “We’re going to have to make adjustments on the fly, but we feel like we have a good robust plan in place, and while we can’t guarantee safety, there is some risk tolerance to this, so everybody is accepting a certain level of risk. We can’t guarantee safety, but we feel like we can guarantee is that we will have a very up to date, technologically advanced system in place, and that we’ll have the latitude in place to make adjustments based on science, based on trends, based on how it’s going at our individual campus level, to making the adjustments to ultimately reduce the risk and take the necessary precautions to keep them as safe as possible.”