Weathering storms: Cal Athletics’ year with COVID-19

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Josh Kahen/Senior Staff

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On Nov. 15, the Bears kicked off their abbreviated 2020 season and college sports returned to Cal for the first time in almost nine months. Since then, Cal Athletics has been awash in a wave of returning collegiate sports.

A return of sports during the pandemic, however, requires a litany of tasks that are not obvious to the casual observer. To follow health protocols and safely put on events, Cal Athletics staff have had to shift to new roles during the pandemic, construct plans for every eventuality and adapt previous jobs and activities to safer, outdoor settings.

Many of those challenges were on full display during the 2020 football season, where plans were laid out for every possibility regarding players and fan attendance.

“I had a scenario for 25%, I had a scenario for players and guests, I had a scenario for no fans,” said Gloria “Glo” Kaci, Cal’s director of football and special events. “I was constantly making changes for a very elaborate plan which we first had to present for the city and then to the athletic department.”

In a normal year, Kaci and her staff would spend months preparing a single plan for a season largely set in stone. In 2020, Kaci was forced to plan for possibilities of different levels of fan access while adjusting locker room, restroom and press box plans while complying with campus, local and national COVID-19 regulations.

Cal Athletics staff have had to change their approach to planning and set up as well. Work has either moved online — Kaci praised a virtual Zoom office which enhanced communication — or moved outside with additional personal protective equipment.

“We were enforcing campus protocol on every single person that stepped on campus,” Kaci said. “Every single indoor position had to be made an outdoor position.”

To get to the game days at all has required staff to change their approach and take different roles.

Dustin Coder, director of ticket operations, is one of several Cal Athletics staff members who has now been trained to help test and screen student-athletes for COVID-19, a far cry from his pre-COVID job running ticketing at various venues.

“They needed people to begin doing the screening at both CMS and Haas Pavilion for any staff and student-athletes that were coming into work,” Coder said. “As football season began picking up, we began assisting with the daily testing they were doing.”

Coder and his team man doors and gates, checking temperatures and screeners for student-athletes and staff who are on campus. During antigen testing, they work with the sports medicine department to help administer instructions and sanitize the testing site.

The plethora of returning sports has challenged Cal Athletics staff in other ways. Staff have had to maintain facilities throughout the pandemic and adapt them to new circumstances.

The grass doesn’t stop growing because of the pandemic. We were still on site when campus started shutting down,” said Casey Cox, assistant athletic director of facilities, maintenance and operations. “It was basically just building maintenance, keeping the lights on and water running.”

Since then, Cox and his staff have adjusted to the return of student-athletes and expanded beyond simple maintenance. Weight rooms have been moved into outdoor spaces and were even constructed in the batting cages at Evans Diamond. Hellman Tennis Complex was temporarily transformed to allow basketball teams to practice outdoors. 

With 29 sports returning in spring, Cox has faced new challenges and shorter turnarounds. Venues like Witter Rugby Field have an unprecedented amount of teams playing their seasons at the same time in them.

Despite the challenges and even amid the sheer inundation of sports in spring, Cox has enjoyed the return of sports and student-athletes.

“I’ll take the long hours and the weather and back-to-back games and whatever it is. That’s what I do and that’s what we’ve always done,” Cox said. “Yes it’s stressful and yes we’re doing a lot more than we’ve ever done before, but I’ll take that any day.”

It is a sentiment that is shared throughout the Cal Athletics staff, who feel both grateful to work and grateful to work at Cal.

Kaci, Cox and Coder all praised the safety measures put in place for staff, as offices are now cleaned regularly and only allow one occupant at any time. Social distancing is maintained, hand sanitizer is ubiquitous and staff are able to work from home as needed. Aiding in-person testing and screening has been voluntary, according to Coder, and staff who need to care for children or who have preexisting conditions have been accommodated, according to Kaci.

Additionally, Cal Athletics has not had any pandemic-induced layoffs according to an email from associate athletics director Herb Benenson, as coaches have taken voluntary pay cuts and a “campus-wide hiring and merit-pay freeze” has been put in place.

The pandemic has been a challenge like no other, but Cal Athletics is weathering it.

“We had all these new rules and regulations and protocols and everyone got it. They all wanted to do what was right not only for themselves but for the person they worked by,” Cox said. “During all this, I’ve never been more proud to work with a group of people than I am here.”

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]

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