Playing football in the midst of a global pandemic presents challenges that have never been considered in the past. Everything from the way teams are practicing, to how they will assemble in the locker room, to how they will stand on the sideline during the game will look different in a time when different is the new normal.

“We’ve been talking and having dialogue with the conference office just making sure that we have things the way it should be here,” head football coach Mike Houston said earlier this week. “My questions are: do we need to continue to have multiple locker rooms for game day? Do we need to use an alternative space? We got to make sure we have a workable appropriate space for the visiting opponent also. There’s so much there. What the press box is going to look like…it’ll look different for our coaches. I think it’s going to be distancing, wearing a mask and following all the protocols.”

During preseason camp, the Pirates have been utilizing multiple locker rooms to encourage social distancing while conducting COVID-19 testing at least once per week. In-season, testing will increase to three times per week, with the final test on Friday being a rapid result test ahead of a potential game on Saturday.

Under guidance from the American Athletic Conference that was reported back in August, student-athletes must be tested within three days prior to the game and will be required to sit out for two weeks if a positive test is returned. Teams must also disclose positive COVID-19 cases with their opponents two weeks prior to competition.

To ensure his team stays healthy during the season and does not have a repeat spike in cases like it did in August, Houston said the program will take steps to create a bubble after testing on Friday’s. Part of that includes moving all student-athletes, coaches and staff to a local hotel during home games and putting in place strict protocols for everyone to follow.

“We’re going to try as much as we can to create a bubble from our Friday test on,” Houston said. “We’re testing three times a week, we’ll be testing Monday, Wednesday, Friday. That should guarantee, as much as possible, that you’re going to have nobody inside that travel party group that has tested positive. We’re going to try as much as we can to keep them from having any outside contact with anyone. We will be at a hotel, we’re going to have very strict procedures and protocols with travel to the hotel and operation around the hotel. It’s going to be unlike any other season that we’ve ever had. We do feel like we can create that (bubble) in the last 24 hours before kick-off.”

Since ECU moved all undergraduate courses online at the end of August, the Pirates have been operating in a de facto bubble on campus. Only about 800 students remain in university dorm buildings, and student-athletes take their classes online, cutting down the need for them to venture to the liberty and other facilities.

Still, it is not a completely sealed bubble, especially when players are released from practice and the supervision of the coaching staff. Houston said earlier this week he feels like teams across the country have learned how to practice football safely, but that the real test comes in making sure athletes do not contract the virus outside of the team facilities.

“The thing we talked about at the end of practice today is you’re getting to where you’re just over two weeks from kick-off,” Houston said on Thursday. “It is so imperative that we protect each other, and that’s all of us. We all have to be so, so careful away from each other so that when we’re together, we’re not putting anybody at risk.”

At this point, if a student-athlete tested positive for COVID-19, they would not be able to participate in ECU’s season-opener against UCF on Sept. 26. Contact traced individuals would also be disqualified due to the procedures and protocols they would need to pass before returning to football activities.

Coaches are in a similar boat, forcing ECU, and conceivably every other school in the country, to plan for the loss of a play-caller or position coach during the season. Houston said he and his staff discussed that this summer and formulated plans to work around the possibility of a coordinator getting sick.

What those plans look like remain to be seen, and hopefully will not need to be used this season. Those plans, along with ECU’s contingency plans if a position group is impacted by COVID-19, will only need to be used if the Pirates’ bubble pops in-season. Leading up to Sept. 26, there are many people making sure that does not happen.

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