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Breaking down the COVID-19 protocols for the 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament

An unusual year means unusual rules for the Big Dance.


If you haven’t heard the news by now, Northwestern women’s basketball is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. As a 7-seed in the Alamo Region, the ‘Cats will face 10-seed UCF on Monday to kick off what they hope will be a memorable March.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still prevalent and the NCAA still doing everything it can to let the show go on, Coach Joe McKeown and crew will be subject, like all other teams competing, to protocols meant to limit the chances of an outbreak within the tournament’s bubble-like environment in San Antonio. Despite there no longer being a statewide mask mandate in Texas and the mayor of San Antonio’s recent executive order only encouraging businesses and the public to wear masks, teams will hardly interact with anyone not related to the tournament.

The process actually began a week ago. In order to arrive in San Antonio, the 34 individuals within Tier 1 — players, coaches and other members of the team’s traveling party — had to record seven straight days of negative tests, with at least one of the requisite tests being a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. For NU, this isn’t really any different from the regular season, since the Big Ten mandated daily antigen testing. From the looks of it, the ‘Cats had no problems in this stage:

Now that the Wildcats have settled into the Texas digs they hope to occupy for the next several weeks, what rules are they obligated to follow? For starters, they’ll have to observe universal masking and physical distancing rules for the duration of the tournament when not practicing, participating in games, alone in their hotel rooms or eating. Each team has prearranged and approved mealtimes, with participants eating either in their rooms or in physically distanced meal rooms with assigned seating. They’ll also be tested daily by Diamond Health, the company brought in by the NCAA to provide testing services.

On Wednesday, the Wildcats began their quarantine in their hotel rooms. They need to test negative on two consecutive days (separated by at least 12 hours) before they can participate in team activities, per a document obtained by The Athletic. Negative tests on Wednesday and then Thursday morning will allow NU to practice Thursday afternoon.

Each Tier 1 member has their own room, and teams occupy floors that include members of their own program. Tier 1 individuals cannot go into anyone else’s hotel room and cannot share a hotel elevator with someone from another program.

If a player, coach or other Tier 1 individual tests positive, the individual will immediately be isolated and the NCAA will begin the process of contact tracing. According to the NCAA, all Tier 1 participants will wear contact tracing devices throughout the tournament when actively training, specifically during practices and games. The idea is that a positive COVID case hopefully won’t derail a team since players or coaches won’t be traced out if they follow protocol.

Should contact tracing protocol be initiated, contact tracers from the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District will analyze data from these tracking devices, as well as video evidence, to determine how much time each Tier 1 individual spent with the person who tested positive. If the time of an individual’s exposure is under 15 cumulative minutes over the course of 24 hours, they will not have to quarantine and can continue to practice, play and participate in team activities.

Exempt from testing and contact tracing protocols within the bubble are any asymptomatic Tier 1 individuals who had a prior COVID infection and are both at least two weeks post-infection and within 90 days of the first known date of infection. These individuals will still be subject to the same masking and social distancing rules as all others.

If a team experiences a “COVID-19 issue” that deems it unable to participate in the tournament — though the NCAA doesn’t highlight within its protocols what would constitute such an issue — and the first game of the tournament is yet to be played, they will be replaced by one of the first four at-large teams out of the tournament unless they are an automatic qualifying team from a conference that has received only one bid.

In this case, the conference in question will have the opportunity to select another team in the ineligible team’s place provided the replacement team can produce the requisite seven days of negative tests needed to enter San Antonio. If a team experiences a COVID-19 issue and can no longer compete after the tournament has begun, the game will be considered no-contest, and the team’s opponent will advance to the next round. Teams can enter and remain in the tournament as long as five players remain healthy and available to play.