BLOOMINGTON — Public address announcer Chuck Crabb’s message booming over the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall loudspeakers was as about as forward as IU has ever been.
“Fans, if you are not presently consuming food and beverage, please remember to wear your mask at all times inside the arena,” Crabb read from the scorer’s table during the IU women’s basketball win over Nebraska on Thursday. “Together, let’s keep the players and the community healthy and safe, and increase the chances of hosting additional home games this season in front of live audiences. Thank you.”
With the surge of the Omicron variant, IU is facing another COVID-19 crisis. Classes returned fully in-person this week and on Friday, the university reported over 1,200 COVID-19 cases across all campuses. It was the highest total of any week since IU began reporting testing data in August 2020. Hospitals in the state are full, so much so IU Health called for the Indiana National Guard’s assistance.
And in IU’s athletic department, that’s meant a return to COVID-19 precautions and policies that laxed as the pandemic lulled — ramping back up to even stronger masking protocols as Omicron roars. After a year without fans, Crabb’s message pleads for cooperation.
“We needed to double down just like the rest of society,” Deputy Director of Athletics Stephen Harper said. “We’re trying to take the right precautions to have our teams have a successful season which is ultimately their goal.”
A successful season, Harper described, means avoiding COVID-19 pauses and doing so with fans in attendance.
IU women’s basketball team has been the most public image of IU’s refocused COVID-19 response. During games and in videos from practice, players are seen wearing masks. They wear the black cloth masks with their numbers printed on the front in white like they did last season. On the sidelines, coach Teri Moren brought back the same mask she wore throughout the 2020-21 season.
“I’m not an expert, I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist,” Moren said. “But we have been impacted by this virus. We’ve always tried to do everything in our power to protect ourselves."
In Assembly Hall itself, an indoor venue where masks are required, IU’s gameday staff has taken stronger enforcement efforts for the mandate, but many fans do remain unmasked. The men’s basketball team released a promotional video encouraging fans to wear masks in Assembly Hall so they too could continue having fans at games.
The changes began coming in December, Harper said. Teams across the country were canceling games due to COVID-19 cases. The IU wrestling team had to pull itself out an event due to cases within its own team. Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams have had games canceled, but none due to cases within their own teams.
“I think last year we were one of the few if not the only team in the country that didn’t have cases,” Moren said. “We took great pride in that, understanding that we made sacrifices. We were a committed group.”
Harper said health and safety protocols are now more complicated than earlier in the pandemic with new CDC guidance and more factors at play. Isolation is now only recommended to be five days, per the CDC — guidance IU is following.
There’s now considerations as to whether a player is fully vaccinated — and what constitutes fully vaccinated now — whether they have symptoms still and more. The athletic department policies continue to be made in junction with IU Chief Medical Officer Aaron Carroll who had led the school’s pandemic response.
“Their feeling has been that the best strategy to keep our teams on track is to have everybody boosted,” Harper said of the guidance from the medical staff. “It’s not part of a mandate right now but it’s certainly what we’re pushing out to our student-athletes.”
On the recommendation of IU’s medical staff, the athletic department has invested in KN95 and surgical masks over cloth masks like the ones the school provided to all students at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.
The IU women have dealt with these protocols for both players and coaches within its own team during the past month and half for the first time. Moren never directly named players out with COVID-19, though Chloe Moore-McNeil and Grace Waggoner both missed time in health and safety protocols. Moore-McNeil returned Thursday against Nebraska. Waggoner returned to the building, but did not play.
“Unfortunately, our string of being able to last in terms of not being able to have these pauses have affected us,” Moren said. “Well, not pauses, but they have affected our bench in particular.”
Both the IU men and women’s team are fully vaccinated due to the requirement to enter The Bahamas when both teams took trips there this season.
Booster shots are not required by the athletic department nor the overall university itself, though it is an idea being discussed.
“The only thing that we do is we encourage our kids and then we leave it up to them,” Moren said. “We give them as much information and education as we can. At the end of the day we realize it’s their choice. We support whatever decision they make, but my job as a leader and our job as an institution is to provide our student-athletes with as much information about how the booster can, it might not completely prevent it, but it can help.”
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: How IU Athletics is dealing with COVID Omicron wave