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We’re starting to get answers about college football in the COVID-19 era

When the SEC and Florida announced voluntary workouts can begin June 8, they revealed some information about the biggest sports-related questions of the pandemic.
The Florida Gators will resume voluntary practices next month.
The Florida Gators will resume voluntary practices next month. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published May 22, 2020
Updated May 22, 2020

After weeks of discussion and hypotheticals, college football’s return from the coronavirus pandemic started to look and feel real Friday when the SEC announced its players may resume voluntary, on-campus workouts June 8.

“At this time, we are preparing to begin the fall sports season as currently scheduled,” commissioner Greg Sankey said, “and this limited resumption of voluntary athletic activities on June 8 is an important initial step in that process.”

While the announcement itself was an important first step for the most powerful conference in the sport, Friday’s more interesting developments centered on the answers that started to emerge surrounding the biggest athletics-related questions of the COVID-19 era.

Like this: What happens if an athlete tests positive?

Related: How the Outback Bowl is handling the coronavirus pandemic, college football uncertainty

In a Q&A for its athletes, Florida said players who live in an apartment will self-isolate there, and the Gators’ academic center “will work with campus” if the player lives in a dorm. Regardless, they’ll be monitored by medical staff (who will determine when the quarantine can end) and have food delivered to them. Any “close contacts will be evaluated by the medical staff,” which may or may not include testing.

The SEC calls for anyone who might have the illness to be isolated immediately and for contact tracing to follow.

Florida and the SEC revealed slightly different answers to another critical question: Who gets tested?

The SEC’s guidelines include a three-step screening process but only specify testing for symptomatic players, coaches and personnel.

The Gators will be stricter than that; UF Health will screen and test everyone “before coming back to campus or utilizing training facilities.” Those tests will take place as part of players’ physical exams. Athletes will also be screened every time they enter athletic facilities, which will be accessible only by appointment to limit contact.

Friday’s developments also show how schools will not return uniformly across the country or even in the same conference. Even though the NCAA voted Wednesday to allow voluntary workouts as soon as June 1, the SEC decided not to resume those activities until a week later.

Related: Could college football start without every team? It has before

Florida and at least six other SEC schools (Georgia, Tennessee, Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Missouri) said they’ll start training June 8. Statements from Kentucky and Arkansas were less definitive about whether they’ll be back by then.

UF’s veteran football players can get their physicals and COVID tests Monday to begin working out June 8. New players will arrive in early July, with returning soccer, volleyball and basketball players showing up between the two dates. Athletic director Scott Stricklin said the Gators are staggering their return “so that we don’t have an influx of a large number of student-athletes returning at once.”

UF’s guidance includes other details about what things will be like for players when they return to campus.

The Gators are advising their athletes to wear masks/face coverings while inside athletic facilities but not while working out. Players who don’t follow guidelines such as social distancing or wearing masks could lose access to facilities.

UF is discouraging athletes from leaving campus, which could increase the risk of exposure for themselves and everyone else. Any athlete coming from state-designated hot spots —New York, New Jersey, Connecticut or Louisiana — must self-quarantine for 14 days.

Florida wants athletes who have “hesitations and anxiety about returning to campus" to discuss them with the training staff or the four licensed mental health counselors players can access.

Related: Six historical lessons college football can apply to the coronavirus pandemic

Even after a series of statements and announcements Friday, there are still many unknowns about what the season will look like, when it will kick off and whether fans may attend. But after weeks of uncertainty, some of the important questions are starting to get answered.