Utah athletics unveils its restart plan for football and other fall sports

Two days after the Pac-12 announced it would allow on-campus voluntary workouts beginning June 15, the University of Utah laid out its plan to make sure its student-athletes come back in a safe, prudent manner.

Beginning June 15, in-state, returning student-athletes from the football, men’s and women’s basketball, gymnastics, volleyball, and men’s and women’s soccer teams will be allowed to return to campus for voluntary work. Out-of-state returning student-athletes in those sports can return June 22, while all new athletes in those sports can arrive on June 28.

According to the university’s plan, unveiled publicly for the first on Thursday afternoon during a Zoom call with the media, there will be a reevaluation of the first three phases on June 29 to determine the next steps. Assuming an all-clear is given after the first three phases, more student-athlete arrivals will begin on July 13.

Upon return, student-athletes will be given a PCR COVID-19 test, as well as an antibody test.

“The main reason we want to test individuals [for antibodies] is to see who maybe has already contracted the virus at some point and has become asymptomatic,” said Dr. David Petron, a University of Utah physician who serves as a member of the Pac-12’s COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee. “The main reason we want to do it is to do further cardiac and potentially pulmonary testing on those that have tested positive. We’re going to start the test with a qualitative test, meaning it would just be a positive or a negative.

“If that test is positive, we do a further test to make it a more accurate test by doing a quantitative test so we’d know the type of antibodies. If we do those two tests, it helps us pin down who might have been positive in the past, we feel like we can do further testing for the protection of the athlete, specifically cardiac and pulmonary.”

Utah’s phase-in process will last 14 days from the time a student-athlete returns. In that timeframe, there will be a check-in station and temperature check before athletes and staff are allowed to enter facilities. Specifics are as follows.

  • Filling out an electronic survey to streamline the process and maintain a record.

  • Anyone entering a facility must have appropriate daily wristband and face covering.

  • Student-athletes will be escorted to and from the training facility and within all facilities.

  • All student-athletes cleared to work out will be on a roster at the check with a specified report time. Student-athletes not on that roster or who fail to report at the correct time will not be granted access to the facility.

As reintroduction plans across the country begin to trickle out, one significant point of emphasis has been, what happens if a student-athlete tests positive for COVID-19, or is at least showing symptoms?

At Utah, if someone reports they are sick, aside from not being allowed inside facilities, that person will have an evaluation done over the phone with a physician referral. Medication will be given, but if symptoms persist, they will be sent for testing and ordered to self-isolate. Anyone else who has had high-risk exposure, a roommate or housemate for example, will be asked to self-isolate as well until test results are known.

High-risk exposure to a student-athlete will result in home quarantine for 14 days or quarantine with testing done on the third and fifth day. If both tests come back negative, the student-athlete will be cleared to return to activity.

Everything laid out Thursday complies with an “orange,” or moderate threat level. Most of the state of Utah has been at a “yellow,” or low threat level since May 16, but Salt Lake City, home to Utah’s 1,500-acre campus, remains at orange. Mayor Erin Mendenhall recently said Salt Lake City could move to “yellow” by the end of this week.

“All the steps and procedures we have in place right now are conforming with phase orange,” Utah director of athletic training Trevor Jameson said. “As we look at what the state allows for this level, we are meeting that and we plan on doing that for several weeks. Obviously, whatever color the state is, we’re going to follow those guidelines. We are in compliance with that and the color of the city that we are in will help dictate our plans.”

Despite a great deal of uncertainty since the COVID-19 pandemic completely halted sports in the United States in mid-March, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan has offered an optimistic tone when speaking publicly on the situation. That continued earlier this month when, in an ESPN700 interview, Harlan believed an early-June restart was plausible, if not likely.

With a plan in place, Utah’s athletic department is now out in front in terms of Pac-12 schools reintroducing their student-athletes. The league’s footprint includes six states, which are at varying degrees of stay-at-home orders and social-distancing guidelines.

As of Thursday afternoon, Arizona State is the only other Pac-12 school to announce its plans for a June 15 return. Either way, things continue to trend toward a 2020 college football season happening, potentially with an on-time start.

Utah is slated to open its season Sept. 3 against BYU at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Utes host Montana State Sept. 12 and hit the road for the first time Sept. 19 when they travel to Wyoming.

“This is an important first step of many that are going to be part of the process to begin our fall sports in the fall,” Harlan said. “That’s why it’s important we do it the right way, our students do it the right way, and everybody. Obviously, this is an important first step and then the next step, of course, is the more organized team practices. That will be later on in the summer and then leading up to the games in the various sports.

“All of these things line up and if the data continues to become more positive, as we’re seeing in our state, and if everything goes the way we hope that it will, I remain confident we’ll be able to start football.

“There’s a lot of days and frankly, a lot of months between now and then.”