As students returned to campus for the semester, University Athletics re-evaluated its COVID-19 policies surrounding practice and competition, impacting student-athletes, coaches and spectators.
For spectators, the updated policy reduced indoor occupancy maximums and also heightens rules about masking and vaccination or testing. All non-University student spectators 12 or older must show proof of vaccination or have a negative COVID-19 test taken at most two days prior to the event. For spectators, masks must be worn, covering both the mouth and nose, at all times. Currently, no concessions are being sold and outside food is not permitted, though one water bottle is permitted. As far as indoor occupancy, Sojka Pavilion, Kinney Natatorium and Davis Gymnasium have 30 percent reduced occupancy maximums and Gerhard Fieldhouse is not allowing any spectators, though student-athletes get two guest passes each.
“There has been a notable effect on our attendance, especially in basketball. What is hard to discern is if it is a result of our policies or for concerns related to personal safety. It is likely that both have played a role in our attendance reductions,” Director of Athletics & Recreation Jermaine Truax said.
For athletes, some of the largest changes were to the masking policy. According to the Athletics & Recreation 2022 Spring Semester Action Plan, student-athletes are required to wear masks while indoors and “during team meetings, varsity weight room, Gerhard Fieldhouse floor and in all hallways walking to and from KLARC spaces,” though masks can be removed during practice activities and while on the playing surfaces for competitions, including on the bench. For teams that practice in the Fieldhouse, such as Track, Tennis, Baseball and Softball, masks can be removed during full exertion activities but must be replaced immediately.
“Since the Gerhard Fieldhouse is considered a public place, the mask policy is that everyone must wear it at all times and it may be taken off or pulled down to the chin when using exertion. So our policy is simple. When the heart rate is high and when the breathing is heavy during intensity, you may pull the mask to the chin or take it off. When heart rate is back down to normal, you must put the mask on or move it from chin to over the mouth and nose. Our heart rates vary quite a bit during a normal practice, but for the most part, our student-athletes and coaches are being compliant to the policy and trying to be as safe as possible,” Kevin Donner, Head Coach of Track and Field, said.
Coach Donner also explained that periodically people are warned to put their mask back over their mouth and nose when it’s apparent that the heart rate is not high as a simple reminder and there is never a problem to do so.
“I don’t believe wearing masks has affected our team whatsoever. As a matter of fact, I believe less athletes are catching the flu and the common cold this semester because of the masks and this is traditionally the flu season. Early last semester when masks were not mandated, we had a high case of the common cold among our program. Although it’s been almost two years since the start of COVID-19, and there are a lot of people questioning how effective masks really are, it really has not been much of an inconvenience at our practices and competition. With that said, we are all looking forward to the outdoor track and field season this spring where there will be no rules at all for masking outside,” Coach Donner said.
According to Truax, the updates to the COVID-19 Athletics policy were designed with both University guidelines and the NCAA’s Athletics Resocialization Plan in mind.
“The main priority is to have the safest possible environment for our student-athletes and those in attendance… [COVID-related change] has been a real challenge, especially in the early stages of the pandemic. We have relied on the advice of some of the best medical experts in the country to develop our mitigation strategies, we often received conflicting CDC, State, and Local guidelines that changed constantly,” Truax said.
“Being informed while trying to keep others informed has been difficult. Luckily, we are in a much better position now,” Truax said.
Truax describes her biggest success as providing “the safest possible environment for our student-athletes to do what they love to do the most – compete!”
Enforcement has taken “a team effort” from coaches, staff and student-athletes, from the University and other visiting teams. Teams are expected to follow the guidelines of the home institution; the Patriot League provided every school with the safety protocols for each member institution so that they can be self-enforced, though Truax states that the protocols are fairly similar across our Patriot League peers.
On the importance of University Athletics following the COVID-19 policy, Truax said: “to ensure that no one gets seriously sick or dies because of the virus. And while COVID poses extremely low risk to student-athletes, it is important that we keep others around us safe.”