The last couple months have been a whirlwind of guidelines, recommendations and protocols designed to keep people safe from the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the country. It seems like every week, and sometimes every day, a new bit of information is released from the national, state, or local level, further complicating people’s search for clarity in these difficult times.

For the better part of four months, it has been a waiting game to see when conditions warrant the reopening of institutions like restaurants, movie theaters and theme parks. For collegiate athletic departments who are looking to play football in the fall, that waiting game has presented one of the bigger challenges.

“Really the challenge is everything is day-to-day,” Nina Baloun, ECU’s Director of Football Operations, said in a phone interview. “We have to wait for the governor to give his OK or give clearance. Once the governor does that it’s then, what is our county going to do? What is the city going to do?

“The challenge has honestly been the waiting period. We are truly at the mercy of someone and we have to be patient. It’s just reminding ourselves, reminding the staff, reminding the players that we have to be patient. As much as we want to do something, we have to wait until we have the proper clearance for it.”

Right now, under the NCAA’s revised preseason plan, coaches are not allowed to conduct formal team workouts on campus. For the Pirates, that can begin as early as July 6, while voluntary workouts in small groups are currently taking place in and around the athletic facilities in Greenville.

In order to keep those workouts rolling without causing a flare-up in coronavirus cases, a slew of protections are in place, including mask-wearing and extra sanitation efforts on equipment.

“Really just adapting to a new normal, that has been huge,” Baloun said. “It is a big challenge because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to run back inside to get my mask. Or how many back-up masks I carry with me when we know that we’re going to have something where some players might be coming into the building…As far as sanitation, there’s someone that I pass along a schedule to.

“With that schedule, he and his team go through and sanitize things. Our equipment staff, they’re in charge of sanitizing. Everyone has their role, it’s just making sure that I give the right schedules and I follow up to see if they have any problems or issues.”

At ECU, every student-athlete that has returned to campus receives a coronavirus test. Thus far, no positive tests have popped up, but that does not mean the Pirates can speed up the process and forego the hard work that allows them to hold that distinction.

Other than their test, players must go through a week-long process on their return to Greenville that includes meetings and information sessions regarding coronavirus.

“They’ll have a lot of requirements to meet for the athletic training staff,” Baloun said. “They’ll get those done, obviously the COVID test will be another step and then we have a meeting with every department that will be working with them. I’ll set it up on Zoom. Our athletic trainer will be on it, we will have our strength and conditioning coach, our nutritionist, our equipment manager, I’ll be on it. We just go through, OK, so when it’s your group for the weight room, this is how you’re entering, this is how you’re exiting, this is the proper protocol, this is how it’s being sanitized.”

While some football players made it back to campus a week or more ago, a big portion of the team is expected back this week, meaning they would likely join workouts at some point next week, assuming their test comes back negative.

The ones that have already tested negative, however, are understandably champing at the bit to resume formal team practices and other activities they missed out on in the spring.

“For me personally, the hardest most challenging part is telling the players that we can’t have a full blown practice outside or a sit-down meal with each other or that all 100-plus of them can’t be here at one time,” Baloun said. “That’s really the most challenging part, especially when they see themselves as ‘I’m healthy, I tested negative.’ It’s just reminding them that yes, even though those things are true, we still have to keep up with all of this to avoid any future issues.”

Waiting and being patient has become the name of the game for ECU student-athletes and staff. While the season continues to draw closer — it is now just 66 days until Marshall is set to visit Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium — it is important to remember the protocols and actions that have put colleges around the country in the position to hold on-campus workouts.

Yes, waiting has been tough for all those involved. With a little bit more patience, however, we might get to see the college football season start on time this fall.

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