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With move to online classes, Utah’s athletes now have campus to themselves, but COVID-19 challenges remain

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) | Utah Utes women's basketball coach Lynne Roberts currently has seven players in quarantine due to possible COVID-19 exposure, but the Utes remain optimistic they can open their season this weekend.

When the University of Utah announced its initial return-to-campus plan in June, it included the fact that in-person instruction would end no later than Nov. 25.

In an effort to mitigate travel-related COVID-19 spread, all classes have now shifted online, which is where final exams will be conducted beginning on Monday. The general student population is not expected back until spring semester classes begin Jan. 19.

The Salt Lake City campus is mostly empty now, save for student-athletes from various teams. Football players are in the middle of their truncated regular season, preparing to host Oregon State on Saturday evening (8:30 p.m., ESPN), while basketball players from both genders are readying to begin their respective seasons this week.

All three programs have dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak this month, but football was hit especially hard. Between positive tests and the ensuing contact-tracing protocols, the football team was unable to hit the Pac-12′s mandated 53-player threshold necessary to play a game in consecutive weeks. First, the Nov. 7 opener vs. Arizona was canceled on the eve of the game, followed by the same thing happening ahead of a Nov. 14 contest at UCLA.

With classes now online and almost no students on campus or in dorms, can that help alleviate issues as the athletic department continues with its daily antigen and PCR testing program?

“We’ve had our share of problems like a lot of other teams across the country, but yeah, the less people you’re around, the better,” Utes football coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Now that campus is empty, the guys that are on campus, in the dormitories, that’s more of a safe environment I would say than a bunch of people being there.”

In the wake of twice not hitting the 53-player threshold necessary to play a game, Whittingham noted Tuesday that, thanks to Utah’s administration and medical staff, the football program has been able to add an extra safety measure.

In many cases, football players are living in close proximity, either in dorms or off-campus housing. According to Whittingham, if players are living together, and one of them tests positive, the others involved in that living situation become high-risk exposures and have been moved to a hotel.

How many football players have moved to a hotel is unknown, but Whittingham labeled it as “not a high percentage.”

“We’ve just tried to make sure we’ve separated everybody as best we can, and put them in the best possible scenario, and it really has been a benefit in a lot of instances in the last few weeks where we’ve been able to isolate things that wouldn’t have been as isolated if we had not made that move,” Whittingham said. “We’re just doing everything we can to mitigate the likelihood of COVID. I think our staff has done an excellent job of doing that.”

Lynne Roberts is the latest Utah head coach to preside over a COVID stoppage. On Nov. 23, two days before the women’s basketball team was slated to open vs. Southern Utah at the Huntsman Center, the athletic department announced a pause of all basketball activities due to a positive test and ensuing contact tract. The pause also canceled a Nov. 28 visit from Utah Valley.

Like football, women’s basketball is utilizing a hotel for high-risk exposures. Roberts, who is entering her sixth season with the Utes, indicated Wednesday on a Zoom call with reporters that she has between five and seven players currently quarantined in a hotel.

It should be noted the women’s basketball quarantine isn’t what would be considered a traditional isolation. Per Roberts, given her program works out of a controlled environment at its practice facility, players who have tested negative for a certain number of days are allowed to go to the facility, test again, practice with masks and social distancing, then go immediately back to their quarantine location.

That situation is in effect until Friday, when the Utes were supposed to play at No. 17 Oregon State. The plan is now to open Sunday at No. 10 Oregon, with the game against the Beavers in Corvallis moved to Tuesday. Roberts revealed Wednesday that Utah has picked up a nonconference game vs. Montana State on Dec. 11 at the Huntsman Center. In an increasingly-typical COVID scheduling situation, the Montana State game is happening because the Bobcats were scheduled to play at BYU on Dec. 10 and at Utah Valley on Dec. 12. The UVU women are now dealing with a COVID stoppage, so Montana State will instead play BYU and Utah on back-to-back nights.

“We had done such a good job of handling it, and I still think we have done a good job, but this goes to show that COVID does not discriminate and everyone is vulnerable,” Roberts said. “We are recovering, in all senses of the word, starting to get back out on the court, and it’s just a unique situation.”

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