Fan Fest 2020

For this year's Fan Fest, fans could submit posters and signs to showcase in the stands in the absence of their physical presence.

COVID-19 had brought an enormous wave of uncertainty throughout the entire year. The cancellation of March Madness earlier this year left many fans wondering if they’d be able to see the Gonzaga men’s and women’s basketball teams on the courts at all this season.

After Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s new COVID-19 restrictions on indoor sporting events came into play in mid-November, many Zag fans worried that the season would not begin at the same time as originally planned. Taking a deeper look at the restrictions, it outlines that university-level sports are allowed to continue their seasons as long as they are following all of the necessary guidelines. 

“Both our full-time staff and our student staff are doing a tremendous job in maintaining safety,” Mike Roth, GU athletic director said. “We actually exceed what Spokane Regional Health [District] has even suggested.”

But, Zag fans can rest assured that they will be able to cheer on their favorite basketball teams from home this year. It may look different, but by following the guidelines that the state and local health officials laid out for university-level sports, the season will continue.

During the Thanksgiving break, both teams will be traveling to participate in tournaments with a number of teams across the country. The women’s team travelled to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the men’s team to Fort Myers, Florida, for the tournaments.

The athletic department has been preparing for traveling for these tournaments for months now. It has been in close contact with the team doctors, the Spokane Regional Health District as well as the health districts in the places the teams are traveling to. 

“Once we land at those locations we’re under their rules, we’re no longer under Washington state or Spokane regional rules,” Roth said. “So we’ve been educating ourselves and our doctors have been educating themselves through what are those rules, and we’ll continue to test and all those things as we travel.”

When the teams return to the McCarthey Athletic Center in December, the teams will not be greeted by live fans, but instead by cardboard cutouts and fan sounds pumped in through the speakers. 

Following in the footsteps of other universities and pro-sports teams, the stadium will be empty aside from the essential personnel permitted entry. Those allowed in are put into different tiers, which will allow different levels of accessibility.

“It’s a very small list [of people allowed inside McCarthey],” Roth said. “We had the full walk through with both Kraziness in the Kennel and Fan Fest.”

The tiers were laid out by the NCAA for all collegiate basketball teams to follow. The tiers are a clear picture for who is allowed inside the facilities and where they can go when inside.

Tier one includes student-athletes, coaches, athletic trainers and physical therapists, medical staff, equipment staff and officials. This group is part of those that are not able to practice social distancing or mask wearing during the game. 

“They get tested a whole bunch and they stay in their group,” Roth said. 

Tier two of the NCAA tier-system includes those who come into close contact with tier one, but are able to maintain some level of social distancing. This group includes security, event staff and certain operational staff members.

Tier three includes the media, housekeeping, sanitization staff and transportation staff. This tier is not allowed to come in contact with tier one, and they will be situated far away from them in order to maintain social distancing and minimize the spread of COVID-19.

In conjunction with the tiers laid out by the NCAA, both men’s and women’s basketball teams are following a number of other guidelines in order to have a safe and successful season. 

“Mask-wearing, distancing, equipment sanitizing and good hygiene habits are all part of our practice and game protocols,” Shannon Strahl, senior associate director of athletics/compliance & student services at GU said in an email.

Strahl is also part of the athletic department’s COVID-19 response team. 

The visiting teams are also a topic of discussion, as different places around the country are experiencing different severities in COVID-19 spread and response.

“We’ll have our team and their tier one group, then we’ll have the visiting team in their tier one group, both of which will be tested before the games,” Roth said. 

Earlier in November, news broke that a couple of COVID-19 vaccines are likely to be rolled out to some Americans as early as next month. As of now, the plans put into place do not use the vaccine as part of the  plans.

The plans put into place at the moment have gone through different groups to approve, including GU’s COVID-19 response team, the people working in the student health center, with final approval coming from President Thayne McCulloh. The athletic department lays out the protocols to those bureaus and tells them how the athletic department is going to operate and refines those protocols if need be. 

“It’s kind of like the old adage they use in Montana for weather, if you don't like the weather in Montana you wait five minutes and it'll change,” Roth said. “Well in COVID, you just wait a day and things are probably going to change.”

The men’s basketball team will kick off its season on Thanksgiving, Nov. 26, in Fort Myers, Florida, against the University of Kansas. The women’s team will play its first game against the University of Oklahoma in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Saturday, Nov. 28th.

Lindsey Wilson is a staff writer. Follow her on Twitter: @lindseyrwilson1.

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