For Alabama head coach Nate Oats, the coronavirus scare provided an opportunity to joke about avoiding his regular media responsibilities and recommending stock options in hand sanitizer.
But otherwise it’s business as usual for the Crimson Tide men’s basketball team as it heads to this week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament in Nashville, where ninth-seeded Alabama (16-15, 8-10 SEC) will play No. 8 seed Tennessee (17-14, 9-9 SEC) at noon Thursday to kick off the second day of action inside Bridegstone Arena.
“Look, the administration sent out a few emails, (team athletic trainer) Clarke (Holter) is all on top of (what’s going on),” Oats said Tuesday. “Anytime anything comes up, the flu bug, they do all that stuff. I guess we can pack a few more bottles of Purel or whatever. … Look, I’m doing whatever (team officials) tell me to do, but as the head coach, I don’t have a whole lot of say in that stuff. I’m going to follow the medical staff’s instructions and do what I can on that end.”
It’s much the same at Auburn, where head coach Bruce Pearl is being cautious but otherwise not altering the No. 2-seed Tigers’ regular routine ahead of its 6 p.m. tip Friday against the winner of Thursday night’s game between seventh-seeded Texas A&M and No. 10 seed Missouri.
“We talked to the players yesterday and a few days earlier about that. I talked to my trainer and my strength coach. I have got them wiping down the weight equipment and just doing a better job of doing the things you should do to prevent yourself from getting the flu or getting sick,” Pearl said Wednesday.
“I don’t know about you, but I have amped up my vitamins. … I guess I am getting closer to the age — I turn 60 in a few days and I guess that qualifies me as more of a candidate. (But) I am going to trust our leadership to do the right things and be supportive of whatever decisions that they make.
“The washing of our hands, doing the normal things we should be doing to keep us healthy and away from the flu, is the best course of action. We just hope in the next month or so this thing doesn’t get much worse before it gets better.”
The World Health Organization officially categorized the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak as a “pandemic” on Wednesday, with multiple government organizations taking extreme precautions to limit the potential spread of the illness that has affected more than 150,000 confirmed cases worldwide, including 1,000 in the U.S. alone. That includes at least 31 deaths in the U.S. attributed to the coronavirus, with elderly and those with a suppressed immune system most at risk.
While the SEC Tournament has not yet been affected by the coronavirus, it seems the NCAA Tournament will be after Ohio governor Mike DeWine said Wednesday that the state will issue an order dictating the First Four games in Dayton and first- and second-round games in Cleveland next week must be played without spectators.
Washington governor Jay Inslee announced a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people in Seattle (there are first- and second-round games across the state in Spokane, Wash.) and Houston mayor Sylvester Turner said all city events in March will be cancelled (Houston is a Regional site).
It’s also affecting the professional ranks as the NBA’s Golden State Warriors announced Wednesday it will play games without fans after the city of San Francisco officially banned all large group gatherings involving 1,000 or more people.
Other collegiate conferences have taken even more extreme measures to prevent further spread of the virus, with the Ivy League outright canceling its annual postseason basketball tournament and all spring athletics through the remainder of the academic year. Meanwhile, the Big West and Mid-Atlantic conferences decided Tuesday to restrict public access to its postseason basketball tournament sites, meaning games will be played without spectators in attendance.
When asked about that possibility, Alabama sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. shrugged it off, comparing the potential — albeit unlikely — dynamic to practice.
“Well we practice in front of no fans, so it’d probably be like practice but you’re actually playing a game,” Lewis said. “Everything’s going to be the same, just no fans.”
In an effort to limit health concerns associated with the outbreak, the SEC announced Tuesday it would restrict access to team locker rooms to only “essential team personnel” and halt the usual postgame locker room access for media, limiting all interview opportunities with coaches and student-athletes to the traditional press conference setting provided.
The conference has traditionally provided media “open” postgame locker room access for 30 minutes after a 10-minute “cool down” period immediately following SEC Tournament games, which usually provided local media unique access that it was rarely granted by individual programs. Alabama, for example, regularly restricts all media access to its locker rooms — regardless of the sport — during the regular season and even controls what players are made available for postgame interviews. Most other SEC teams follow similar restrictions for media personnel.
Instead, the SEC indicated it would create “a separate controlled auxiliary space” near where the postgame press conferences are held for “a limited number” of additional interview opportunities that will be up to each team’s discretion.
“The health and well-being of student-athletes and teams is an ongoing priority for the SEC,” the conference released in a statement Monday.
The league also announced it would provide greater health and sanitation measures around Bridgestone Arena, including the use of “hospital grade disinfectant” in the team locker rooms and around the court — including with the basketballs used in games — while also increasing the availability of “hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes and Lysol spray” in the team and officials’ locker rooms, at the scorer’s table and in the operations offices in the building.
“The SEC is providing additional hand sanitizers at all arena entrances, throughout the concourse and in meeting rooms,” the release read. “The SEC will also display the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations on preventive action on signage throughout the concourse.”
This comes days after SEC member institution Vanderbilt University announced it was cancelling classes through the remainder of the week and would suspend all “in-person classes” for two weeks between March 16-30 in favor of “distance and other alternative learning options.” The move was made after three confirmed coronavirus cases were detected in Nashville earlier this week, including a 21-year-old Vanderbilt student.
Both Alabama and Auburn’s athletic departments are following the lead of their respective universities, which have suspended all school-sponsored international travel and advising all students and university personnel take “general precautions” to prevent the spread of all viruses, including the seasonal flu.