MAC closes tournament to general public

MAC Commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher

Less than a week ago, COVID-19 — the coronavirus — was an abstract. It was something Jeff Boals was aware of but not concerned about.

But Boals, Ohio’s men’s basketball coach, and the rest of the MAC along with sporting leagues and organizations across the country, ran into a changing reality on Tuesday. COVID-19 is here, its increasing its presence, and now seemingly everyone is scrambling to limit its spread.

The Mid-American Conference, respecting the instructions of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, announced Tuesday afternoon that it had elected to modify attendance guidelines for the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, set to begin Wednesday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.

The tournaments, possibly the MAC’s single biggest events in a given year, will be closed to the general public because of COVID-19, said MAC Commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher in a released statement.

Only credentialed workers, student-athlete family members, credentialed media, TV and radio crews, and members of the team’s official party will be allowed to attend the MAC Tournament.

“The safety of all is our greatest concern. Since January, I have stated that any decision would follow the advice of state governmental officials and medical professionals,” Steinbrecher said in the statement.

“Following the feedback we received today, we have taken this action which is in alignment with the recommendation of Governor DeWine.”

The moves came one day after DeWine announced three Ohio citizens, all in Cuyahoga County, had tested positive for COVID-19. On Tuesday, the Ohio Department of Health said 15 additional people in the state are being tested for the virus.

ATHLETICS: For indoor events, we are asking for no events with spectators other than the athletes, parents, and others essential to the game.

Right now, outdoor events can continue. #COVID19— Governor Mike DeWine (@GovMikeDeWine) March 10, 2020

The attention the virus has received, both in state and nationally, has exponentially grown since Boals was asked about COVID-19 last Thursday. At the time, Boals said his team had been briefed on the specifics of the virus and how to limit potential exposure and spreading of the virus.

For example, Boals said his team has been tryin to developing habits like elbow bumps and fist bumps as opposed to handshakes and high-fives when celebrating.

“They say it’s five times more likely to spread germs by a hand shake or high-fiving,” Boals said. “Try not to touch your nose, your ears, your eyes. We’ve talked about that aspect of it, and just try to educate them as much as you can.”

At the time, Boals didn’t anticipate how much more the virus might affect his team specifically. And now it has affected both his school — Ohio joined the growing list of institutions around the state in suspending face-to-face teaching on Tuesday — and the biggest event of the Bobcats’ season.

@OHIOPrezOffice has announced precautionary actions in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, including a move to a virtual instruction environment through at least Monday, March 30, 2020. https://t.co/qzzLMw95Y2— Ohio University (@ohiou) March 10, 2020

“Eventually it’s going to spread even more, you kind of expect that,” Boals said Thursday. “I don’t think it’s going to be as bad as people think, or as good as people think.

“It’s just something you got to be aware of and try to do the best you can hygiene-wise.”

Ohio Athletics didn’t have an official statement of its own about the change for the MAC Tournament, and instead followed the MAC’s lead. OU did announce that any tickets for the tournament purchased through the Ohio Athletics Ticket Office would be “automatically refunded.” In addition, all Ohio University fan engagement functions surrounding the tournament have been canceled.

Meanwhile, the NCAA on Tuesday offered no official stance about COVID-19 and how it might affect the NCAA Tournament, set to begin next week. Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse will also be one of the sites used for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The NCAA did release a statement Tuesday afternoon.

“The NCAA continues to assess how COVID-19 impacts the conduct of our tournaments and events. We are consulting with public health officials and our COVID-19 advisory panel, who are leading experts in epidemiology and public health, and will make decisions in the coming days,” the NCAA said in a written statement.

The MAC isn’t the only conference to alter or cancel its conference basketball tournament. The Ivy League flat-out canceled its conference basketball tournament earlier this week. The Big West, like the MAC, said it would hold its games but without spectators.

“The Big West Board of Directors, comprised of the chief executive officers of the nine member universities, strongly feel that this is a prudent way to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus while being sensitive to our student-athletes who have pointed towards playing in the tournament all season,” Big West Commissioner Dennis Farrell said in a statement.

Both Ohio’s women’s and men’s teams traveled to Cleveland on Tuesday to prepare for their respective tournaments.

The Ohio women’s team opened the tournament on Wednesday against Western Michigan.

The Ohio men will face Akron in the men’s quarterfinal round beginning at 12 p.m. on Thursday. Likewise, a win would put the Bobcats into the semifinal round on Friday.

Both games, and all MAC Tournament games, will be played at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. All quarterfinal games will be aired live on ESPN+.

Email at jarkley@athensmessenger.com; follow on Twitter @JasonAmessenger

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