Thanksgiving Day for the Gophers football team follows the same routine most years.
The team usually does a light walk-through in the morning in preparation for a rivalry game against Wisconsin that Saturday. After a team lunch, the local guys scatter to their various family homes, taking any out-of-state teammates with them, for another Thanksgiving dinner.
There won’t be a double-dose of turkey this year. In fact, there’s not even a game.
A COVID-19 outbreak has shut down all team activities for the foreseeable future, including this weekend’s trip to Wisconsin. The Gophers announced Wednesday a new total of 25 positive cases — 12 players and 13 staff. That’s up from 15 — nine players and six staff — reported Tuesday. The additions were presumed positive tests from Tuesday that are now confirmed.
The next update on the number of cases will come Saturday, per an athletic department release. The earliest the Gophers could return to practice would be sometime next week, and athletic director Mark Coyle has been adamant about playing Northwestern on Dec. 5. But sources close to the team have indicated there are doubts about the feasibility of that considering the scale of the outbreak on hand.
“Thanksgiving is a little bit different than maybe years’ past,” coach P.J. Fleck said Monday.
The CDC as well as the Gophers have encouraged players to not go home for Thanksgiving to help prevent COVID-19 spread. Players can still pick up a grab-and-go meal on turkey day 2020, but they’ll have to take it back to their respective dorms or apartments to eat. That is, if they’re even still in their usual homes.
Per athletic department strategy for positive tests, if players room together and one tests positive, the positive player must isolate at home while the roommates are relocated to hotels for the full 10 days required. Players holed up will have meals delivered to them.
Those food handoffs and continued six-days-per-week testing for the non-positive players are about the only check-ins the football team has these days, with the facility on lockdown ever since the athletic department halted practice Monday evening before officially going dark Tuesday.
That leaves the players with an unusual amount of extra time — since gyms, in-restaurant dining and other recreational activities across the state are also currently shuttered — to catch up on homework, sleep, maybe even some Netflix. But many of the players have already been living a very strict life going from the football facility to home, with little socializing in between.
The other Big Ten programs with outbreaks this season, Wisconsin and Maryland, both needed two weeks to control their spread as their cases reached 30. And all of the Gophers’ 12 positive players must sit out the Big Ten’s mandatory 21 days for isolation, cardiac testing and an acclimation period, which could knock them out of the Northwestern game and Nebraska on Dec. 12. That leaves just the to-be-determined Dec. 19 game, planned as a matchup with an East Division team based on the standings, as the final outing.
The Gophers (2-3) likely will play at least one more game this season, albeit with depleted personnel possibly. But they managed against Purdue this past week, winning 34-31 despite 22 absent players from COVID-19 positive tests or injuries.
While the team has surpassed the Big Ten’s protocols threshold for cases on a team, 13 for the Gophers, they likely haven’t surpassed the other threshold of positive tests from total tests, which stands at 61 for the Gophers.
Because positive players are not tested again while infected, the Gophers would essentially need to have 61 individuals test positive in the past seven days of 170 players and staff to qualify as an automatic cancellation.
Instead, the Gophers athletic department pulled the plug on the Wisconsin game on its own.
Regardless of how quickly the Gophers recover, there are constant reminders of how different all this feels from 2019’s 11-2 finish.
“It’s where we’re at,” as Fleck said.