OU athletics director Joe Castiglione discussed the Sooners' masking policy and stadium social distancing models in a Sept. 15 “Business After Hours” Zoom webinar hosted by the Norman Chamber of Commerce.
Castiglione acknowledged that while the majority of fans adhered to safety protocols during Oklahoma’s Saturday game against Missouri State, improvements must be made. He also shed some light on how his department has handled the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Here’s what Castiglione said about the Sooners’ mitigation efforts:
On masking policy at sporting events
In Castiglione’s opinion, Oklahoma’s 48-0 win over the Bears on Sept. 12 went well from a masking and social distancing standpoint.
However, blatant disregard for the rules within OU’s student section left Castiglione saying fans have to do better. He even warned fans could be banned from games altogether if responsibility does not improve.
“It's a challenge, obviously, to enforce (the masking policy), but most often people were really good about it. ... We have to do it. It's not really an option. We have a mask policy on campus and we've said from day one that we need people to wear their masks for their own safety as well as the safety of people around them. And people can tell me all they want about why it is this and not that, and they don't think they should have to wear a mask, and I respect it. I respect the fact that it's not comfortable. I respect all those things, but that's our approach. And if we do a good job with it, we're going to be able to have fans, and if we don't, then we're going to probably be forced to do something different.”
On stadium social distancing models
Asked how OU’s social distancing models for Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium were planned, Castiglione revealed his department spent months working with an international organization that also assisted professional leagues like the NBA, MLB and NFL with their models.
Castiglione said Oklahoma’s model was designed specifically for its stadium, and the model did not waver from regular spots to student section seats.
“In some cases, maybe our venue being older might have helped us to some degree. I don't know until we get through this all whether I can make that statement with certainty, but I do know that the distancing model that we have in place was planned for our specific facility. And once we knew the model, then we went through and developed a seating process that basically created pods … that were two, four, six, or eight (people). And then once we knew what the ticket holders wanted to order then we could space out from there. And so the larger the pod meant the possibility that we would be able to accommodate a few more people (than) if they were just all maybe twos or fours. And that was purely up to the ticket holder.
“(With) the percentage seating capacity that we have in our stadium, we provided for student tickets. You would probably not know it if you were at the game because there was a big area that looked very empty, and there was a reason for that. That was the social distancing model. They may have started there but they didn't stay there. And our ushers were really working hard trying to get them to stay in the areas that were part of the distance model but that was a bit of a challenge, to say the least.”
On personal protective equipment costs for athletes
Castiglione said OU has spent over $430,000 on personal protective equipment for student-athletes since July 1, and he expects that count to rise above $1 million before the end of 2020.
Despite the price tag associated with those purchases, Castiglione said his department is committed to keeping athletes and staff members safe.
“Many of you have heard me since day one. Safety, welfare (and) health are going to be the benchmarks that we have in place to focus on every decision we make, and that's nonnegotiable.
“So we've found the funds that are necessary to make that happen and will continue. (If) we want to have sports, this is the path we have to take. And, of course, as we've learned more as science has evolved, as testing has become more available (and) as our medical experts guide us, we're modifying our practices so they can be considered the very best — the gold standard — of medical practices or protocols that we have in place for safe practice, safe play, safe work and ... to be on campus doing what we need to do."
On increasing stadium capacity in the future
Though not all fans met OU’s standards at the first game of the 2020 season, Castiglione said he is optimistic about the future.
He said he does not know if a potential increase in stadium capacity will be possible later this season, but it would certainly be feasible if fans, players and staff obey the athletic department’s rules on masking and social distancing.
“Well, (there’s) no way to predict that right now, but as I mentioned earlier, if we do our job and we continue to reduce the number of cases, we know we're in a risk mitigation approach, not a risk elimination one. We'd love to be in the risk elimination (approach), but we don't have that power. But we do have ways to mitigate the risk of the spread of the virus and we're trying to do everything we can.
“Probably a lot of things you didn't see on Saturday night (were) that we had a team going around sanitizing things every chance we took or could get to help. But the masking policy and the distancing and washing your hands are three things that can really help reduce the risk, and so (if) that works well and it works well in our community, then we might have a chance to adjust the seating capacity.”