Marion County gets ready for NCAA tournament during pandemic

Big Tournament

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS — “I love basketball, thank you,” said Marion County Public Health Director Dr. Virginia Caine, recalling her career as an undergraduate on the court. 

“I played basketball in college. I was a guard. And I was a wonderful guard because every free throw I missed in the game, my coach would make me run up and down those flights 10 times for every free throw I missed.”

Dr. Caine is on guard again at the forefront of Marion County’s battle against COVID-19 as Indianapolis prepares to welcome the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament this spring.

68 teams from across America will travel to central Indiana to play 67 games on hardwood from West Lafayette to Bloomington with the most important matchups occurring at various sites across Marion County over a three week period, culminating in the national championship game April 5.

Dr. Caine has been consulting with the Indiana State Department of Health and the NCAA’s own health advisers on how to stage such a massive tournament during a pandemic.

“These participants will be tested for seven straight days before anyone from Tier 1 participants arrive in Indianapolis,” said Dr. Caine, referring to the players, coaches and staff in the teams’ inner circles. “Once they get into the city, IU Health will be testing every team participant from Tier 1 every day, and they won’t even be allowed to start practicing until they’ve had tier testing for at least two days and they’re negative, and then they can begin practicing once they are here in Indianapolis.”

The Indiana Convention Center, with enclosed walkways to headquarters hotels, will be the isolated practice site for the teams.

“They’re going to be staying in hotel rooms. My understanding is they will be taking up floors. They will have security,” said Dr. Caine. “They will only leave from their hotels to their practice sites, and if they’re just walking, not a problem, from the hotels, they’re only in those hotels that are connected to the convention center, and they have their meals either in their rooms only or they can have arrangements to have their meals in the convention center, but there’s no mixing of any teams. They have to be six feet distancing when they’re eating. They’re not allowed to roam the streets, go to any outside restaurants related into coming into our city, so a complete bubble related to the Tier 1 participants.”

Most fans will never catch a glimpse of the players in person, and family members will be restricted, too.

“Right now they’re not having any fans, but they will allow six individuals for each participant from their household to attend this event,” said Dr. Caine. “But there will be no player or participant be able to have any face-to-face interaction with any of their relatives because they’re not part of the bubble, so they’ll have to see their children after the game if they’re negative, and we want to be sure that they’re not spreading anywhere. And they get tested before they leave the city. We need to know if there’s any issues with any of them positive before they leave.”

Dr. Caine said the Marion County Public Health Department would conduct contact tracing for any positive cases related to the tournament.

Indianapolis has hosted modest size high school age sports tournaments since last summer and permitted up to 12,500 fans for the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium, setting the stage for complex public events such as the March Madness tournament.

“We have had smaller basketball tournaments, which currently right now, have had a much larger number of participants coming into our communities compared to our current number of individuals than you’re gonna see with NCAA,” said Dr. Caine. “So if you look at the NCAA plan right now, there’s never more than 2,000 people at any one time on a day in our community.

“So just from the staff, the team, the coaches and the NCAA folks, we’re way, way below what you would consider a 25% capacity of a sports event, not even close.”

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