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Florida football pauses activities after COVID-19 cases spike

Florida is likely to be significantly short-handed against LSU — if it plays at all this weekend.

NCAA Football: Florida at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Update, 4:30 p.m.: Florida has paused all football activities as of Tuesday afternoon “out of an abundance of caution,” per a statement from athletic director Scott Stricklin.

The University of Florida football team has experienced an increase in positive COVID tests among players this week. Out of an abundance of caution, team activities are paused as of Tuesday afternoon.

Head coach Dan Mullen has been in communication with football players and their parents, and I have had conversations with the Southeastern Conference office, last week’s opponent Texas A&M, and this week’s opponent LSU.

These circumstances will be re-evaluated by UF Health and the athletic department’s sports medicine staff Wednesday.

But while this news follows a Tuesday release from UF reporting five new positive cases among the football program, reporters are suggesting the true number of cases is far higher — and that one positive player played extensively in Florida’s loss to Texas A&M.

Update, 6:30 p.m.: Titus — who wrote briefly for Alligator Army in 2019 — cites “three sources close to the team” for her claim of 19 cases in her report for The Independent Florida Alligator.

Associated Press reporter Mark Long also confirmed the 19 cases figure.

Original story follows.

The Florida Gators have five new positive tests of COVID-19 among their football team as of a weekly update, the program announced Tuesday.

That number — presumed to be correlated to five distinct human beings producing said results — is the highest that Florida has reported in any COVID-19 testing update for its football program since mid-September, the second-highest since it began releasing detailed information about testing for the novel coronavirus this summer, and up dramatically from just one case reported last week.

Florida’s self-reporting of positive COVID-19 tests had been spotty over the summer, with numbers initially being reported by journalists rather than divulged by the program, and the program’s initial communication on the subject getting cloaked in vagaries like this positively-spun update from an August piece on the many precautions put in place by the football program:

The in-depth system the Gators put into action has produced effective results, highlighted by a month-long streak of no football players testing positive for COVID-19 or being quarantined following an initial learning curve when a string of positive tests and quarantines resulted as players adjusted to the new norm.

But while there are reasons, good and bad, for vagueness — protecting players’ privacy is obviously important, but writing off players testing positive for a novel virus with indeterminate long-term effects as part of “an initial learning curve” might rub some the wrong way given the possibly more important task of safeguarding players during a pandemic — it’s also true that Florida seemed to have done a fine job of mitigating cases within its football program in more recent weeks.

It was Florida’s lacrosse and baseball teams, after all, that saw all activities paused in September due to team-wide outbreaks, and Florida’s soccer team that had a match postponed due to a lack of available players after COVID-19 testing.

However, that update from September 15 also mentioned six positive tests for football in the past week, which was then seen as a large number for a program that had done well in mitigation during the offseason and while students returning to campus for the fall semester drove surges in positive cases in University of Florida and Alachua County data.

The Gators’ five positive tests now come after that surge has largely subsided, and amidst the regular season — meaning that there may be significant players unavailable because of what Florida termed “the widespread quarantines for those in their direct contact” when it pertained to its soccer team postponing a game with just three positive cases on record.

It’s a stretch to imagine that Florida will be without enough players to threaten the viability of Saturday’s game against LSU itself, as that prospect would likely have led to a Monday postponement like the one the SEC announced for a Vanderbilt-Missouri game originally scheduled for this Saturday. But it’s not hard to envision that five positive cases might keep affect another 10 football players with direct contact — and even if there are somehow no players ruled out this weekend for quarantine reasons, missing five players could be devastating to Florida depending on their identities. (Those identities will almost certainly remain unknown pending external reporting, as Dan Mullen has repeatedly stated he won’t reveal the identities of players out for coronavirus-related reasons and Florida has not publicly revealed the identity of any of its athletes who have contracted the virus.)

Primarily, the report of a spike in coronavirus cases among Florida athletes should produce concern for the athletes, even if most evidence suggests that short-term effects of coronavirus are mild for healthy young adults.

But a spike that both reminds that athletes are taking significant risks this fall and could hamper Florida on a crucial Saturday is very much the worst of both worlds for the program at the moment.