ST. GEORGE — Local collegiate sports during the continuing pandemic are starting to trickle back onto the calendar.
It started with a swim meet at BYU and continues in earnest with the start of basketball for Southern Utah’s two universities: Dixie State University and Southern Utah University; however, the question of fan attendance remains, and the two universities have gone in different directions, at least to start the season.
Dixie State will allow up to 1,000 fans to attend the school’s Division I debut, while Southern Utah will not allow fan attendance for at least the first few home games.
For Dixie, there is a confidence that, assuming protocols and safety guidelines provided by health officials are followed, allowing fans to attend in a controlled environment with strict enforcement can be safe.
As previously reported by St. George News, the Trailblazers have capped attendance at less than 25% of the capacity at Burns Arena, and they won’t be selling individual tickets. Only season ticket members, club members, player guests and students will be permitted to attend.
“What we have found and the direction we have gotten is that the data is showing that the virus is not spreading at events where you follow the proper protocols,” DSU Athletic Director Jason Boothe told St. George News.
“It’s not spreading in our classrooms, it’s not spreading on our campus when people are wearing masks and are socially distant. It’s always a risk –anything we do – but we thought we were going to give this a shot.”
Boothe noted that if fans refused to follow protocols and social distance, Dixie State could pull the plug on allowing attendance right away.
“I would have been just as comfortable with the decision to not have fans in there. It would have been a little easier, and we could’ve eased in to it. But we felt it was something we should at least give a shot, to give our fans a shot to come in,” Boothe said. “I want to emphasize that we’re ready to react accordingly if we have to revert back to no fans. We’ll be ready for that.”
Southern Utah University, however, decided to be more conservative, at least to start, and hold off on allowing fan attendance to give game day officials time to figure out the logistics in the times of COVID-19 with essential personnel before adding people that don’t necessarily have to be there to make the event happen.
While Thunderbird administration said it may have been possible to host fans immediately, they wanted to be able to ensure a safe and controlled environment and work out the kinks first. They wanted to determine traffic flow patterns, sequencing and more before they introduce hundreds of more people to the space.
“Our hope is that we figure this out (how to run games safely) in the month of December,” SUU Athletic Director Debbie Corum said. “Then we can open the doors safely to our fans on Dec. 31. We didn’t want to have to open our doors and then have to shut them because we had the wrong protocols in place or that sort of thing. Our staff asked that they be allowed to have trial runs in December and then move to the fans.”
Corum said it was important that game day officials felt safe doing their job.
“We’ve got to make sure that … the table crew feels safe, the radio feels safe,” she said. “So they were just saying, ‘Let us just have a few home games where we can have those trial runs.'”
When each athletic director was asked about the other university’s position, both expressed respect and an understanding for the reasons behind their separate decisions.
They were also in agreement that fans will cooperate to allow games to continue and their presence to be permitted. Boothe noted that the only fans in Burns Arena will be those who are invested in making sure games continue. Season ticket holders and booster club members want games to continue because of their financial input, on top of their general enthusiasm. Parents and guests just want their family members to be able to continue playing. And Corum said the community of Cedar City has been accepting of what SUU needs to do to allow the games to continue as well.
“I haven’t heard one negative comment,” she said. “I think they’re very accepting of it and knowing what our motivation is, for the safety of our athletes and coaches.”
Corum also said she has seen a national trend of fanbases accepting the situation and just wanting games to be played. Both SUU and DSU will livestream all their games on their respective conference networks and websites, perhaps making the prospect of not being able to be there in person a little more bearable.
Both athletic directors also acknowledged that the situation is changing nearly by the hour and that new developments with the pandemic can swing the pendulum to either expanding capacity to allow even more fans or shutting down sports entirely.
For now, in front of fans or not, college basketball is gearing up to get underway.
SUU’s men’s and women’s teams both start on the road Wednesday before the men start their home schedule on Nov. 28. Dixie State’s men’s basketball team also starts Nov. 28 against Weber State and its women’s team takes on BYU three days later, both at home.
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