The Virginia athletics department announced on Monday that, out of a total of 1,012 COVID-19 tests administered over the preceding seven days, there were 12 new positive cases, representing a positivity rate of 1.2%. For the first time since July, among those were members of the Virginia Cavaliers football team.
“So, we’d just gone from cheering after every test since early July,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said in his weekly press conference. “And when I found out and it was late, it was late in the week, and I announced to the team that we had a number of tests, there was like silence and it sounded funny saying it, and the team looked like wait, did he just say that we had some positives and then no one quite knew what to do.”
Seven players were unavailable for last Saturday’s game against Clemson, although the school did not report which were as a result of positive tests and which were as a result of contact tracing.
The team underwent testing again on Monday—per established protocol, they test every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
“So our tests on Monday,” Mendenhall said on his coach’s show on Tuesday night, “I guess I can share already. The only test that’s not back so far is mine. Everyone else was negative.”
To date, Mendenhall and his coaching staff has been both practicing and preaching best practices when it comes to social distancing, masks, and following both the letter and the spirit of CDC, state, and local guidance. So when the first positive cases were reported, it hit close to home.
“I think we’re tightening down our masks and spacing out a little more. Just wait, who’s my locker who’s next to me? It was just the, I wish I had a better phrase, a wake-up call of just how fast, and how random, that it can happen.”
“I’m looking hard at redesigning and putting new best practices or new practices in place right now. In fact, after I’ve learned from the contact tracing questions and how that’s working and things, we might be able to mitigate maybe some effects of that in the future.”
Some of those practices include spacing out chairs more during team meetings, and having team meals be “grab-and-go.” Players don’t have access to the second floor of McCue, where the coaches’ offices are. Staff meetings are being held via Zoom, even if the coaches are in their offices right next to each other.
Where meetings have needed to be in person and not through Zoom, Mendenhall says that they’re in plexiglass in the same room, “almost the equivalent of a phone booth...It’s like a game show where you go on and you’re not supposed to hear what anyone else says. It’s like that.”
Meetings are also held in the George Welsh Indoor Football Practice Facility, where they’ve set up screens and folding chairs to have the facility effectively serve as “home base,” allowing for both ventilation and greater distancing, and the space is then cleared out for practice.
Locker room entry times are staggered in a way that deters overlap among players. According to Mendenhall, they’re working on adding more lockers to space everyone out even more, and are considering dividing the team into different locker spaces altogether. When traveling to Clemson, they rented out an armada of buses.
“There’s like six people per bus,” Mendenhall said. “It seemed so obsessive.”
The locker room is largely transactional at this point, with little camaraderie, and Mendenhall says they’re getting ready to elevate that to a higher level. He says all this while wearing his mask, joking that “as you can see, my mask, I mean, the virus is going to have to come with a drill to get through this thing because it’s hard to breathe.“
But even with these measures in place, Mendenhall acknowledges that the randomness of virus is such that, there’s no way to ensure 100% safety.
“Because, let’s face it, the thought that it could or will happen again, I would have to say that’s likely when you have this many people doing the same things daily and having the contact we are even as effectively as we’ve done it.”
“In terms of this 2020 year, with the uncertainty of your own roster, of your own coaching staff… because we’re all vulnerable to the virus. It’s hard to tell when you might get it, and so adaptability is huge.”
Mendenhall was complimentary of NC State’s work so far at adapting this year as their roster has rotated pretty heavily, particularly at quarterback where Devin Leary and Bailey Hockman have alternated starting so far.
“I think North Carolina State has done a nice job managing three different distinct opponents with different rosters.”
Virginia and NC State kick off at 12:00 noon ET on Saturday. The game will be televised on the ACC Network.