After nearly a year, 10 spring-season sports are anticipated to make a return to Long Beach State Athletics after the Big West Conference Board of Directors announced earlier this month that conference members were cleared to resume athletic activity.
An actual return to play, however, rests on several factors, according to athletic director Andy Fee.
“I think we can continue forward, my worry is if somehow suddenly we just have a lot of people getting sick and then we certainly have to look at pausing and making sure that we are doing the right thing,” Fee said. “It’s [going to be a lot of] trying to keep people as safe as we can, understanding that nobody has a magic wand to necessarily keep everybody healthy, but it’s something I think about every day.”
The first hurdle the athletic department needed to overcome was receiving approval from the Big West, which came on Jan. 15.
The next step, Fee said, might not be quite as easy. As the department awaits city approval, Fee remains uncertain of an official date for when spring sports can return.
“We still need the city of Long Beach and public health to finalize our plans and approve them, [but] until they say yes, we will not start practicing the spring sports,” Fee said. “So I don’t know what date spring sports will begin. Hopefully it’s soon, but we’ll just have to wait until the public health officials sign off on it.”
In the meantime, Fee said, both basketball programs will continue as previously scheduled.
For months, men’s and women’s basketball have been the only two sports that have been allowed to resume activity. Despite their best efforts, the programs have experienced their fair share of setbacks and challenges.
On Jan. 15, both programs were put on hold due to concerns surrounding COVID-19, including false positives within the department.
“In the world of COVID, things change so dramatically,” Fee said.
Players were able to resume activities on Jan. 19, and Roger Kirk, director of athletic communications, said the lessons learned from these setbacks and challenges have helped the athletic department bolster its playbook on how to adapt to the ever-changing surroundings.the lessons learned from these instances have helped the athletic department bolster their playbook on how to adapt to the ever-changing surroundings.
“Everything has been very fluid, and both teams have worked really hard to be flexible,” Kirk said.
Prior to the start of the fall 2020 season, the Beach anticipated that the basketball program would spend upwards of $1 million on coronavirus testing alone. Since then, the teams have completed 1,200 tests with very few positives.
Fee is still planning to test athletes three times per week to ensure the safety of all members of the program. The only thing that will change come spring, he said, is the cost of testing itself.
“We have found even very recently, costs are coming down quite a bit. There’s more technology coming out, more competition, I guess,” Fee said. “Certainly, with more testing, it’s kind of like the Costco effect, we’re hoping that we can package more testing into a cheaper per test cost for antigen testing, which is cheaper than PCR testing, but even that was still relatively expensive.”
According to Fee, funding will be coming from donors as well as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, along with donors.
“Testing is going to be with us, at least my guess, conservatively, for the rest of this semester and then next academic year,” Fee said. “So we’re going to continue to look for ways that we can save money yet, obviously, have tests that are valid and help us keep people safe. But even with cheaper testing, we’re still looking at a very high cost, which is ‘unbudgeted.’”
Along with continued testing, players will be required to be vaccinated before they are allowed to participate in any department-related activities.
“We’re not going to kick people off a team, but essentially, you wouldn’t be allowed to come to practice or any of the team functions if you don’t take the vaccine,” Fee said. “We just need to keep that bubble, so to speak, as I call it as safe as possible.”
Any coaches, staff members or players who do not want to get vaccinated will not receive any penalty for their decision to refrain from doing so. Players’ on-campus housing, their financial support or their place on respective teams will not be affected by this decision either.
“We don’t look at this as some sort of punitive measure, it’s just from a safety standpoint of trying to limit [and] mitigate transmission of COVID,” Fee said.
Women’s basketball coach Jeff Cammon said that he supports the decisions of those on his team.
“We all have our opinions. Coaches, administrators, families, we all have our own opinions and feelings on different things and this isn’t any different,” Cammon said. “As far as the vaccination, that’s something that our young ladies have to decide if they want to do it or not.”
With the Moderna vaccine expected to arrive by the end of the month, student Health Services is in the beginning stages of screening and scheduling students, faculty and staff for their vaccinations. Out of the seven stage distribution plan, student athletes are fifth on the list.
“The first time we hear that we can go get vaccinated, we’ll be in line,” Fee said. “It sounds like just talking to our coaches and student athletes, it seems anecdotally like everybody wants the vaccine, unfortunately, [it’s just] a little bit of a waiting game, as it is for most of us now.”