From college coaches to administrators to scientists, there is unanimous agreement that accurate and efficient testing is the only way to safety bring student-athletes back on campus.
The process began on Monday as Florida State football returned to offseason workouts with about 50 players, who have been tested for coronavirus. And it will continue in the coming weeks as football players at schools like Clemson and Louisville return to workouts next week.
FSU is allowing just football players back on campus for now but plans are in the works to bring back men’s and women’s basketball players as well as athletes in soccer, volleyball and cross country. There is no date specified for a return yet, but construction has begun on a COVID-19 testing lab at FSU’s Innovation Park that will help get student-athletes back to offseason workouts.
Innovation Park is just three miles south of Doak Campbell Stadium. It’s where the Mag Lab resides and is a research and development park which allows scientists from FSU and Florida A&M to work and often they collaborate alongside private businesses.
With office space available, construction crews this week began demolition work as they removed carpeting and walls while adding computer wiring and putting down linoleum and painting, FSU Vice President for research Dr. Gary Ostrander told the Board of Trustees at Thursday’s meeting. Ostrander said FSU is acquiring a number of PCR machines, which examine segments of DNA in the polymerase chain reaction, lab equipment and reagents so that the university will have a COVID-19 lab.
“We have two primary objectives that are guiding this,” Ostrander said. “One is incredibly high accuracy. Everything is set up to optimize accuracy. The second objective is we need to be able to turn around results in 8-24 hours.”
If a student, whether an athlete or not, wakes up one morning and doesn’t feel good, potentially displaying symptoms of the coronavirus, he or she can be tested immediately and expect a response either that day or the following day.
“The testing lab that we will create at Florida State University is critical to being successful when we come back in the fall,” president John Thrasher said. “We have to be able to test. We have to be able to trace. We have to be able to do that in a very, very efficient and quick manner in order to keep any hot spots from expanding.”
This is also critical as FSU returns athletes in basketball as well as other fall sports. Testing can be done in-house, ensuring a quicker turnaround. (It’s not yet known to what level the percentage of accuracy of the test.)
What ACC schools are discussing
While FSU is moving forward with its lab, doctors representing each of the ACC’s schools are sharing what they have learned about COVID-19 and seeking recommendations for FSU and other institutions.
“It’s almost a clearinghouse for information from each of the schools,” said Dr. Leslie Beitsch, who is the chair of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine at FSU. “You have a lot of expertise in the group. As an advisory committee, we don’t do policy making. We’ll give guidance and recommendations to the ACC.”
Beitsch has met weekly via video call or teleconference with the group of 14 doctors, each of them representing an ACC school. The group is chaired by Dr. Cameron Wolfe, who is a member of the infectious disease division at Duke University Medical Center and is an associate professor of medicine.
Each of the doctors have varying backgrounds but bring critical expertise to the discussion. Beitsch has focused on healthy policy and public health throughout his career, which includes being Oklahoma’s Commissioner of Health and the deputy secretary at Florida’s Department of Health. And Beitsch says there is a common goal as part of their discussions.
“The key ingredient on the table is how do you resume athletics or how do you re-open schools in a way that protects the health of student-athletes,” Beitsch told the Osceola. “That’s refreshing. You could imagine that it could be something different given that professional sports and college sports are a huge and popular pastime and there are huge financial considerations involved.”
Beitsch said he thinks the committee’s first recommendations will be delivered to the ACC and schools in the coming weeks, and “they’ll take it from a policy perspective.”
He said many of the early suggestions are more common sense than science but he has encouraged programs to wear a mask while working out and to use a specified one-way route, similar to how grocery stores like Publix help to direct shoppers.
As FSU football players returned to offseason workouts, all of them were tested for coronavirus before they were able to participate. A large group of players returned to campus on May 15 and were under quarantine for two weeks. On Monday, the first day of workouts, players were given temperature and wellness checks as part of the daily routine.
“These have been carefully constructed to protect the health and the safety of the student-athletes and the staff,” athletics director David Coburn said. “Anyone who tests positive for the virus will be isolated and tracing will be done.”
If the return of football players to campus goes smoothly, and the FSU lab is established and able to handle testing, then student-athletes from other sports could begin a similar process: test, quarantine and return to workouts.
The plan, Coburn said, is to start athletics seasons in all sports on time. But he also said that contingency plans have been made by FSU and the ACC.
Will fans be able to attend games?
While FSU has put in place a detailed plan for bringing football players back to campus as well as constructing a coronavirus testing lab, there are also discussions about how to bring fans back to Doak Campbell Stadium.
How many? This decision will certainly be made by Gov. Ron DeSantis as well as local health officials and Thrasher. DeSantis has given the go-ahead for the return of pro sports – the NBA will play games this summer at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, for example – but there will not be fans in the stands. Events like the golf match between Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady took place in Florida and the Tampa Bay Rays have also started working out.
But DeSantis has said he’s not yet ready for fans in the stands or galleries on the golf course. Whether fans will be able to attend college football games may not be made until July or August. FSU officials have developed plans, as Coburn said, for zero to 100 percent capacity.
He told the Board of Trustees on Thursday that students and the Marching Chiefs will be accommodated (if allowed by Gov. DeSantis). Coburn indicated that couples or families would be able to sit together, although there will likely be distancing between groups. One option is that only season-ticket holders will be able to attend football games.
“It may very well be that it’s not going to be possible to get into Doak Campbell this fall without a season ticket,” Coburn said. “That hasn’t been decided but that is one of the possibilities.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott stated on Thursday that pro and college franchises in the state would be allowed to seat fans at 50 percent capacity. The Miami Dolphins also have put together a social-distancing proposal that allows for 12,000 fans to attend games in the 65,000-seat Hard Rock Stadium.
Beitsch said the ACC’s advisory group hadn’t yet focused on how many fans could sit in the stands, how far they could be seated apart or how they would enter or leave a stadium. When given a broad outline of a plan by the Miami Dolphins, Beitsch said he appreciates the level of detail that the NFL team put into its proposal.
“Sports are really important to us in American society,” Beitsch said. “They are a distraction and a diversion at a time when we need one. And you want to be able to look at how you do some of these things that doesn’t heighten risks for people. It sounds like the Dolphins are really giving this some careful thought.”
This story originally appeared in the Osceola. Since 1982, the Osceola has been your trusted source for news on FSU athletics. Check out more stories by the Osceola here.