LARAMIE — Although many colleges have since fallen in line with plans to get student-athletes back on their respective campuses amid the coronavirus pandemic, Wyoming was the first Division I program to officially announce it would be bringing athletes back to begin voluntary workouts.
The school will soon put its plan in motion.
On Sunday, UW will welcome back roughly 80 of its athletes as the first of a seven-phase system that will eventually get more than 300 athletes back on campus by the end of the summer. The first phase will include more than 60 football players, the five men’s basketball players returning from last season’s roster and select women’s basketball players. Those sports are normally allowed to begin required athletic activities later in the summer, though the NCAA has prohibited any mandatory workouts through at least June 30.
Voluntary workouts won’t start immediately either.
Once athletes return, they will begin a 14-day quarantine off campus, which UW Deputy Director of Athletics Matt Whisenant and UW football coach Craig Bohl said isn’t exactly the correct terminology for it. Both referred to it more as restricted movement since athletes won’t have access to any on-campus athletic facilities during those two weeks but will be allowed to get out of the house for a hike or a jog if doing so alone.
Athletes returning to campus during the first phase can start voluntary workouts June 15.
“We encourage them to do that so that they’re not always sitting in a 10-by-10 bedroom throwing a tennis ball against a wall,” Whisenant said. “You’re not in a jail cell. You’ve got to get out for your mental health, too.”
Once the first-phase athletes are out of quarantine, athletes during the second phase, which will include the rest of the football and basketball players as well as student-athletes in other fall sports, will begin their quarantine June 15. Athletes will continue to be phased in every two weeks depending on when they want to return to campus.
Once they pick a phase, though, there’s no deviating from the timeline. The final group of athletes, which will consist primarily of those who compete in spring sports, is scheduled to arrive back on campus in late August assuming UW reopens its campus for the fall semester.
“Phase 2 starts on June 15, so can I come in June 18?” Whisenant said. “Nope. You’ll have to wait until Phase 3 then. That allows us to have better control and control as many variables as we can. When you’re dealing with 18-to-22 year olds, there are a lot of variables.”
All athletes, symptomatic or not, will be tested for the virus at Ivinson Memorial Hospital during their quarantine, Whisenant said. Regardless of the result, they will remain in isolation for the full 14 days. All coaches and athletic department staffers that will be coming in daily contact with the athletes will also be tested. Whisenant said the football coaches were tested last week.
UW is currently using nasal swab tests, which Whisenant said run about $85 apiece. That’s if insurance doesn’t cover any of the cost. Cheaper testing methods could be implemented depending on what insurance might cover and how fast results could be obtained, And while the school isn’t planning to continue randomly testing asymptomatic athletes once they’re out of quarantine, “that’s not set in stone,” Whisenant said.
That makes it difficult to know exactly what the final tab will be for all of the testing. UW athletic director Tom Burman told the Star-Tribune he’s confident some of those costs will be covered by insurance, but both he and Whisenant acknowledged the school will have to foot at least part of the bill.
“Everybody’s tracking everything as far as COVID-related expenses,” Whisenant said. “If you’re going to bring your student-athletes back, you’ve got to do it the right way. You’ve got to provide the safest environment that you can.”
For voluntary workouts, football players will start out rotating in groups of no more than 20 into the High Altitude Performance Center (HAPC), where the team’s weight rooms and locker room are located. UW men’s basketball coach Jeff Linder said his players will work out either solo or in pairs at the team’s weight room inside the Arena-Auditorium. Equipment and stations will be cleaned before, during and after each group’s workout.
Basketball players will also be allotted time to get shots up in the gym, though not all at the same time. Athletes won’t be able to use the athletic facilities whenever they want. Everything will be on a schedule.
Normally, athletes access the HAPC and the locker room using biometric fingerprint scanners, but Whisenant said those will be disabled. Instead, players designated to work out at a specific time will be greeted by athletic training staffers at the door, where they will undergo a temperature check and a symptoms check. Athletes also must have masks that will be provided by the school in order to enter facilities.
“It’s not just let them come back and just run wild,” Linder said. “There’s definitely a lot of measures in place to make sure we maintain the safety of the student-athletes and then just the population in general in Laramie.”
Even the meals UW will provide for the athletes who have to be on campus first this summer will be distributed at a certain time each day. While in quarantine, Whisenant said the school will offer a de facto curbside service one hour late each afternoon where football and basketball players can show identification, pop their trunk and have a hot dinner as well as breakfast and lunch for the next day loaded into their car.
Once athletes are no longer in quarantine, they’ll be able to pick up meals on campus on a carry-out basis.
“The whole idea of turning off the access is we can restrict who all is in the building at one time,” Whisenant said. “So you’ve got a time you can come in to lift. You’ve got a time to get your food. You’ve got a time to drop off and pick up your clothes. It’s not just I come and go as please. Everything is on a set schedule, and that’s for us to try to control as many variables as we can.”
But there will be some that the athletic department knows it can’t.
The virus won’t be gone once each athlete’s 14-day isolation is up. And as the state continues to loosen social restrictions related to the coronavirus shutdown, UW’s coaches and administrators would be lying if they said there wasn’t some concern about what their athletes are doing and where they’re going when they’re not on the school’s Laramie campus, which is located in Albany County.
The county has recently seen a sharp increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. The county doubled its total between May 21 and May 26 with 11 new cases during that time and, as of Saturday, has 23 total confirmed cases.
UW spokesman Chad Baldwin recently told the Star-Tribune the increase in confirmed cases included “a number” of UW students living off campus. Albany County health officer Dr. Jean Allias said the primary cause of the dramatic spike was not increased testing but rather recent graduation parties and other social gatherings.
And with the state to allow outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people starting Monday, some of those assemblies are only going to grow in numbers. Indoor gatherings are still limited to 25 people with some exceptions.
“The ability to gather outdoors in larger groups will be good for Wyoming citizens, businesses and our communities as we enter the season,” Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon said last week. “We are not out of the woods yet though, so please use good judgment and don’t jeopardize yourself and others by acting recklessly. We want to keep moving forward.”
Linder said he will essentially give his players the same advice, adding all he can do is harp on the importance of making good choices and practicing safety measures once the players’ quarantine period is over.
“It’s a conversation that we’re going to continue to have with them in terms of understanding that the virus hasn’t gone away,” Linder said. “The more that we can do our part to be responsible citizens and just making sure that we’re doing our part and not spreading the virus or doing anything that’s putting anything in harm’s way. It’s just like with anything with 18-to-22 year olds, you’ve got to remind them constantly of what the ramifications are and how your decisions can affect a lot of people.”
Bohl took it a step further, saying “if guys don’t follow these things, then they’re not going to be asked to be around.”
“The virus is going to be around for a while, and how can we mitigate that?” Bohl added. “That’s by wearing masks, washing their hands and not putting themselves in position like where there are large groups or parties or certainly leaving town and going to metro areas where there’s a significant outbreak of COVID.
“We’re going to be very, very conservative and put down some pretty tight guidelines that, you know what, no. You’re not leaving town this weekend and going to one of these cities that has an outbreak of COVID. And if there’s some social event or a house party or something going on, that’s just not on this dial. You’re coming back here to maintain a safe place, to be able to train and make sure that you have a good, solid well-being.”
Should an athlete test positive for the coronavirus at any point following his or her quarantine, Whisenant said the school will follow the guidelines put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which would include another period of isolation until the athlete has two consecutive negative test results at least 24 hours apart.
Comfortable with timing?
As comprehensive as the school’s plan is to try to maintain the safety of its athletes, nothing is fully virus-proof. Linder said he hasn’t heard from any of his players or their parents that they’re uncomfortable returning to campus.
But counting walk-ons, football will bring back more than 100 players, easily the largest roster among UW’s sports programs. With the players returning from all parts of the country, Bohl said the plan was always to bring them back in multiple phases in order to use the first one as a “test run.”
He added he and his coaching staff are sensitive to reservations any of them might have about returning to campus this soon. Bohl and Linder said they’ve reiterated with athletes and their families that when they decide to return to campus this summer is their call.
“I think there are some parents that are debating some things on their end as well as they should,” Bohl said. “We’ve made it really clear that all of these things are completely voluntary, and I think you’ll find some parents that will go through and maybe they look at the situation where their son is at. And being home is the best place for them to be right now. We’re certainly open and mindful.”
While other programs are waiting a couple of more weeks or even until early July to bring their athletes back, Bohl and Linder said they’re comfortable with UW’s decision to have athletes returning this weekend. The school is as prepared as it can be with the plan it has in place, Whisenant said.
“We’ve gone through a lot of meetings and had a lot of phone calls set up,” Whisenant added. “We feel good about our approach.”
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.
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