GAINESVILLE, Fla. – No. 10 Florida and defending national champion LSU are now scheduled to play in December. Unfortunately for coach Dan Mullen, the stadium still won't be packed.
The Southeastern Conference postponed Saturday’s LSU-Florida game a day after Mullen had 19 players and coaches test positive for COVID-19. Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said Wednesday the number is now up to 21 positives with considerably more in quarantine because of contract tracing.
Those players likely would have been unavailable against the Tigers, leaving Florida with fewer than 50 scholarship athletes and less than the SEC's threshold (53) for holding games amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The game was tentatively rescheduled for Dec. 12, the league's built-in bye week before its annual championship. It's the second SEC game bumped this week, following Missouri-Vanderbilt.
Florida hosts Missouri next, on October 24, and that game also could be in jeopardy.
“Hopefully we don’t have any more positives and we’re able to get on the other side of this and then we can get everyone back in a situation where you can go compete again,” Stricklin said.
Florida paused team activities Tuesday after seeing a spike in positives. Mullen said two assistant coaches also tested positive. The Gators have since moved to everyday testing and and halted meetings and practices indefinitely.
Stricklin suggested traveling to Texas A&M may have been the root of the team's outbreak, with two players who later tested positive telling team doctors they had symptoms before getting on a plane last Friday. One had a runny nose, the other a headache.
Neither told anyone, which Stricklin said would be addressed. He also hinted at potentially looking at tweaking travel protocols.
“I really think it could be as simple as not understanding symptoms,” Stricklin said, pointing to Florida having 10 positives over the previous 11 weeks. "I know people personally who have had the sniffles and a friend of theirs was COVID positive, so they went and got tested and found out they had it. They thought they just had something pretty common. ...
"As a college student, you have those things and it’s not uncommon. But in a COVID environment, it’s so important that we are hypersensitive to being diligent on that front. I don’t know that this was a situation where someone goes, ‘I don’t feel well, but I’m going to power through it.’ I think this is a situation where someone felt like, ‘I’ve got a sniffle, I need a Kleenex and I’m ready to play a game.’”
Florida's shutdown came three days after Mullen’s comments about wanting to pack 90,000 fans inside Florida Field to create a better home-field advantage against the Tigers. Mullen didn’t double down Monday, but he didn’t back down, either.
He brushed aside criticism and praised his guys for how well they have handled COVID safety protocols.
He finally backtracked two days later, apologizing “if I offended people or anybody out there.”
“One of the things I want to encourage was whatever our local health officials come and out say, ‘This is the number of people that we’re going to allow at the game right now,'” Mullen said. “I want to encourage those people to come in, bring the energy, bring the excitement into the stadium and help our team to win and bring that energy that they bring of what makes the Swamp such a special place to go play in.”
Stricklin made it clear Wednesday that Mullen overstepped his area of expertise and added that the plan for the rest of 2020 would be to allow up to 17,000 fans (25% capacity) at Florida Field for home games.
“That number will change one day. I don’t know when they’ll change,” Stricklin said. "But until that changes, this is where we’re going to be.”
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