PROVO — A month has passed since BYU football players were allowed back on campus for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March and forced the cancellation of spring football practices.
The Cougars were one of the first teams in the country to begin voluntary on-campus activities after the NCAA Division I Council voted in May to allow them beginning June 1. The school put in place “strict protocols” to protect both the players and members of the campus community, it announced the day players began returning to the Student Athlete Building, which houses the weight room and other training facilities and is the gateway to the outdoor practice facility.
As of July 1, no fewer than 46 Division I schools had confirmed at least one student-athlete had tested positive for COVID-19, according to figures compiled by USA Today. Several have suspended the voluntary workouts due to a high rate of positive testing.
Naturally, many fans are wondering if any BYU student-athletes have tested positive, especially since the Cougars have been back at it as long or longer than any other team. However, a BYU spokesperson said Wednesday the athletic department has chosen to not disclose that information.
“All volunteer athletic workouts on campus require a screening process for each individual who enters our facilities,” reads a statement from BYU athletics when officials were asked to describe the process. “Upon arrival they are asked some basic questions and go through symptom testing conducted by athletic department staff. If everything checks out, the student-athlete receives a wristband and can enter the facility to work out.”
Not surprisingly, BYU is not releasing the number of positive cases.
“We continue to work closely with university leaders and government officials to monitor the COVID-19 situation closely and provide all possible safeguards for our student-athletes and athletics personnel,” said Duff Tittle, BYU’s associate athletic director for communication. “The results of the daily screening process are not made public.”
None of the half-dozen or so football players who spoke to the Deseret News in June knew of any of their teammates who had tested positive. Only people who have symptoms when they enter the facilities are tested, unless they are from outside the state, the players said.
“They take our temperature every day, ask us if we have any symptoms,” said quarterback Zach Wilson on June 12. “They check us in at the front desk (of the SAB) every day, ask us how we are feeling. We don’t do official testing for COVID unless guys are feeling symptoms and things. Really, that is because the test takes so long to come back. … I feel like they are doing everything they can. I feel like everyone is being responsible and cautious with what is going on, but I do feel like it is time to get back going, get back to normal life.”
What has that screening process been like?
Players are required to wear face coverings when they enter the building. They immediately proceed to a hand-sanitizing station. After they are questioned for symptoms and their temperature is checked, everything is recorded.
“It is really quite simple,” Empey said. “It is super easy. I guess it is another step to do to work out, but we are willing to do it, especially after having not been able to for so long.”
Players proceed to another station where they put their finger into a device that measures blood-oxygen level. They receive wrist bands to show they have been cleared — or they are sent home if their temperature is high or they have the familiar symptoms — fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, or loss of taste or smell.
“We can take the masks off to lift,” Fonua said. “But it is so different now when we lift. We just have the one rack, and we don’t have partners or anything. Even when we are warming up, we do social distancing and stay away from each other, even though we are already in smaller groups than normal.”
Fonua said the routine is similar to what he did at a VASA Fitness gym before players were allowed back.
“We are constantly sanitizing,” he said. “We all have our own water bottles, all that. It seems like it would be pretty hard to spread it.”
Warner said the players stay at least 6 feet apart, even when they are outside.
“From what I’ve seen, everybody is doing their part, and most guys have been healthy, so that’s a good sign,” he said.
Said Empey: “Luckily we haven’t really had too many situations where people have even needed to have tests taken, so that’s great.”
On June 17, the NCAA’s Division I Council approved a model for football teams to resume activities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams can conduct up to eight hours of weight training, conditioning and film review per week from July 13-23.
From July 24-Aug. 6, teams can conduct up to 20 hours of “countable” athletically related activities per week. Up to six hours per week can be used for walk-throughs, which may include the use of a football.
BYU announced last month that its annual football media day will be July 20 and will be mostly virtual.
“I don’t know if it is absolutely needed to get those six weeks (before the opener Sept. 3 at Utah), but I do feel like it would be beneficial for us, just to have some more time as a team together, have more time to get a clearer view and just be around the guys and just get back into the feel of football,” Wilson said. “The more practices, the better that we will play in the first game.”