SALT LAKE CITY — Utah athletic director Mark Harlan thought — at least he hoped — the Utes' football program was in the clear. Following the cancellation of last Saturday's game against Arizona due to a coronavirus outbreak, the Utes closed their facilities, relooked at procedures and tested twice a day.
For three straight days —Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — everyone preparing to play on Saturday came back negative for COVID-19. Friday, though, brought a more sobering result. Another positive test result — and therefore another canceled game.
Saturday's road contest at UCLA has been canceled due to the ongoing spike in COVID-19 cases, the school announced Friday.
"We went into this week knowing it was a day-to-day situation," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We have been doing everything we can under the circumstances to prepare for the game and follow all guidelines and protocols. As is always the case, the health and safety of our student-athletes come first."
The team currently has 17 active cases among student-athletes, coaches and staff. With an additional 11 members of the program in quarantine due to contact tracing protocols, the Utes don't have enough scholarship players available to meet the Pac-12 threshold of 53.
"They've done almost everything they can," Harlan said. "I say almost because I think, at times, just like anybody you find yourself in the community and maybe you're not wearing your mask at a certain time, when you should, etc. We are all humans but I think what we've learned in these last two weeks is there's no margin of error at all."
Utah's medical advisers have stated they have yet to find an example of spread within the team at a practice or facility. That gives Harlan confidence in the measures the university has implemented, but those don't protect the student-athletes at all times. The players are still members of the Salt Lake City community — and that community is experiencing record numbers in coronavirus cases. So almost wasn't good enough to keep the virus at bay. Harlan said the Utah basketball team has also pressed pause on their preparations due to the surge in cases.
"I think we just got swept into what is happening here in the county and in the state," he said.
So where do the Utes go from here? They have five games remaining on their schedule, with a home game against nationally ranked USC on the docket for next weekend. Harlan said the entire program will be tested over this weekend and a decision will be made on Sunday on what to do after those results.
If everyone is negative, practices will likely resume with the hope that they can finally start what would be a very abbreviated season.
"I still think there's a lot to play for," Harlan said. "There's an SC team coming in next week that we're going to do everything we can to turn this thing around (to be able to play) and then we got games after that. We don't know how many games are gonna be played in our conference — we're all rooting for everybody to play every week, believe me. So I still believe as I sit here today there's a lot to play for. We've got to get this virus out of our program to be able to participate."
With Utah and Arizona State both having to sit this week out due to COVID-19 concerns, the Pac-12 quickly pivoted by setting up a new matchup between UCLA and California (which was set to play ASU) for Sunday.
And seeing other teams in the conference play around them hasn't been easy for the Utes.
"I'm concerned about the guys and their spirits," Harlan said. "We could talk all we want about whether you're still in the race or and all the rules and all that other stuff, but what about them? What about their desire to keep pushing forward when you've had two straight weeks and you're feeling like you can make it and then on Friday you don't? We'll still have to assess the hurt and the pain and how we'll pick ourselves up off the floor."
Harlan said Utah hasn't considered pulling the plug on the season and wouldn't be the one asking the conference to go forward without them. But that doesn't mean a fully canceled season isn't in the cards.
"I don't know where college football is going, guys, I really don't," Harlan said. "It's been just an unbelievable week as it is — all the games that have been canceled. I've looked away for an hour, there may have been more. I don't know where college football is going.
"But I think we're going to continue to move forward and work with our medical advisors," he continued. "If we come to a place where they say, 'We just can't do this anymore' then we'll have to react to that but I don't foresee that. I think it's going to continue to be a day-by-day situation."