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A new reality: Virginia football program uses creative protocols to stay healthy for workouts

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Orange Bowl Football

Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall walks the field before the Orange Bowl against Florida on Monday in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Between workouts, someone enters the Virginia football team’s training facility and sprays everything down with sanitizing agents while wearing a special suit and a backpack filled with the disinfectant. Bronco Mendenhall describes it as a “Ghostbusters backpack kind of thing.”

The sanitizing materials are then left on surfaces for a predetermined amount of time to ensure they dry and have their desired sanitation effect.

It sounds like an alternate reality.

On the surface, the protocols appear futuristic and extreme. To those inside, it’s exactly what’s needed to attempt to safely play college football amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s an amazing operation that’s happening here,” Virginia’s head coach said.

The operation, which began last week after Virginia football players arrived on grounds for voluntary workouts, includes much more than disinfecting the weight room following a lift. During those lifts, players are broken into small groups to ensure proper social distancing practices can be followed.

Due to the small size of each group, workouts span from roughly 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. as players cycle through their lifts. Players wear masks during workouts.

“It’s more challenging,” Mendenhall said of working out in masks. “A lot of times, that’s how you train for altitude training, but it’s harder to breathe and it’s hotter, so we’re working hard to keep our players safe and have them become fit at the same time.”

When they’re not working out, players stay in a series of dorms on grounds.

“There’s one exit, one entry into the dorms,” Mendenhall shared. “Anything that’s after hours, you have a checkpoint there monitoring anyone in and out. Players are masking and social distancing.”

Visitors aren’t allowed. That means family, friends and even teammates should not visit players in dorms.

There are common spaces, however, which are set up outside. This allows players to interact at a safe distance, diminishing the potential spread of the virus while allowing human interaction.

Meals are picked up at a tent outside before players take those back to their rooms. To get over to the McCue Center for lifts, players can walk or drive in a vehicle with three teammates.

The walk takes about 15 minutes from their dorms.

According to Mendenhall, the drive spans roughly three minutes. Since this falls below 15 minutes of time spent within six feet of other people, it’s allowed according to the team’s protocols.

Once players arrive at McCue, they scan a code which then shows them a few questions related to COVID-19.

Assuming players respond with satisfactory answers and haven’t recently felt symptoms or been exposed to the virus, the door opens. A trainer waits just inside the door, taking each player’s temperature while they socially distance in line.

If the temperature is appropriate, the player receives a wristband. The color varies each day — Mendenhall wore a white wrist band Monday — and the band gives you access for the day. The protocol is then repeated the next day.

Locker room access is nonexistent. Players show up to McCue wearing their clothes for the workout. Once it concludes, they had back to the dorm where they’re allowed to shower.

Laundry takes place using an outside drop-off point.

“It’s a giant operation we have going,” Mendenhall said. “Our support has been amazing. We’re adjusting as we go. It’s taking a lot to this point, but I’m really encouraged by the people we have and the effort they’re putting in.”

Division I college football is no joke. Neither is COVID-19.

Both the sport and the virus demand attention. Unfortunately, the attention often competes. When it comes to preparing for football, close contact with peers is critical.

When it comes avoiding COVID-19, close contact with peers represents the exact opposite of what’s recommended.

As UVa prepares for the potential fall season ahead, it’s trying to figure out how to safely prepare for a contact sport while mitigating potential spread of the virus.

“It’s very challenging right now to acknowledge the threat of the virus, acknowledge the possible risk the players we love and care about are under and then ask them and ask them appropriately to condition and become ready for this game that’s challenging to prepare for even under normal circumstances,” Mendenhall said. “We’re all feeling kind of an internal turmoil of asking, but not asking too much, and trying to keep players safe, but not at the expense of being prepared.”

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