Last week, Hawai'i head coach Eran Ganot looked outside and reminded himself of the benefits of living in paradise during a pandemic.
"The positive has been, and we've gotten some good interest, is that people still want to come to Hawai'i," Ganot said. "We have a very good reputation of having good control in that regard and being safe. That's certainly becoming more of a priority during all of this."
With an average temperature of 78 degrees in the winter, Hawai'i is an ideal destination for travelers from around the world. The tropical climate has also helped Ganot add home games against Power 5 teams to his nonconference slate. Auburn, Georgia Tech, Miami (Fla.) and North Carolina have all flown to Honolulu for a game against the Big West competitor in recent years.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the Tar Heels were set to return this season, along with Washington State and San Diego State, until the NCAA's Nov. 25 start date negated those opportunities. Despite the setback, Ganot hopes to create a competitive schedule. But he has other hurdles to consider.
Right now, any person who travels to Hawai'i must quarantine for 14 days before entering, as the state tries to maintain some of the lowest COVID-19 levels in the country (53 per 100,000 residents the week of Sept. 28, per The New York Times' coronavirus map). Some quarantine violators have even been tossed into jail. On Oct. 15, however, a new option will be available to travelers from the mainland: Visitors can submit evidence that they've received a negative test at least 72 hours prior to their arrival.
"If you cannot show or demonstrate a negative test within 72 hours on the mainland at the time of your departure from the mainland, you have to quarantine [for 14 days]," said Hilton Raethel, president of the Healthcare Association of Hawai'i. "You cannot get the test when you reach the ground."
Hawai'i's situation illustrates the unique challenges for the Big West Conference, the only league that must plan for travel to and from the mainland. It's also just one of the challenges ahead for college basketball, which will not be exempt from what football programs have had to juggle in recent months.
Quarantine rules and local regulations could significantly impact the 2020-21 season. Most of the restrictions around the country are centered on travelers coming from places with high rates of COVID-19.
Siena recently dropped out of the Orlando Invitational because Florida is on New York State's list of high-risk states, meaning Siena's staff and players would have had to quarantine for 14 days once they returned. In Kansas, residents have been asked to quarantine for two weeks if they've attended any out-of-state event with 500 or more people that did not include proper precautions. In New Mexico, travelers can face "involuntary isolation" if they fail to adhere to quarantine rules after arriving from states with high rates.
"Certainly, during this time, the target has been to try to keep us here as long as we can depending on what options we have in the mainland and that continues to protect our guys for that stretch," Ganot said.
The medical guidelines recently announced by the NCAA instruct teams to quarantine for 14 days if a player, coach or staffer within its Tier I category -- student-athletes plus personnel in regular proximity to them -- tests positive, a measure that could potentially remove multiple games for teams throughout the season.
What does that mean for the Hawai'i men's basketball team and its travel between the islands and mainland? What will it mean for opponents in the Big West and elsewhere that travel there during the 2020-21 season? Ganot said he expects the state to make a seamless transition with its new guidelines and also anticipates improved testing will ease the process for all visiting teams, and his own.
"We're really trying to find a way to present awesome games for our guys and our fans," he said. "You're looking at your current schedule and seeing if matchups we had could be moved, while waiting on more direction from your league."
The Big West, which features Hawai'i and schools in California, a state that also boasts some of the lowest COVID-19 rates in the country, continues to search for the right approach to the upcoming season. California and Hawai'i have presented some of the nation's most restrictive regulations. That's why league officials understand the power of public officials to influence their vision for the 2020-21 campaign.
"We're not close to having the nonconference season [or] figuring it out," UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner said. "I think everybody, as it stands, knows we'll be fortunate to play a season. The NBA bubble ... nothing like that is possible in college basketball."
Ganot said he called his team's journey this offseason "The Road to 15" after multiple players who returned from their hometowns in Australia, Brazil, Belgium and Canada had to quarantine for 14 days once they arrived. Turner said his UC Irvine team can only have six players in his gym at one time and every player has to have their own hoop and basketball, which is frequently sanitized, due to Orange County regulations. Long Beach State officials recently locked down the entire campus after an outbreak.
The league, per Big West commissioner Dan Butterly, will explore multiple options for its nonconference slate, including a potential 20-game season and a 10-game slate, which would create more time between games if a team needed to quarantine. He said the league has also considered scenarios that would keep Hawai'i and other schools in a pod that might allow the conference to stage multiple games in a weeklong stretch, limiting Hawai'i's trips back and forth from the mainland.
Butterly also said the Big West has also partnered with Quidel, the same diagnostics group working with the Pac-12, to obtain rapid tests following the announcement of NCAA guidelines that recommend testing players, coaches, staffers and officials three times per week throughout the season. He estimates that each test, right now, would cost about $25 apiece. Testing up to 30 people in the "Tier I" group three times per week will cost thousands, but he said it was necessary.
"You wouldn't put forth the [NCAA] guidelines if you're not confident this is what we need," Butterfly said. "We're taking these as requirements."
Hawai'i's rules might also create a scenario where Ganot must arrange proper testing during road games in California and elsewhere to obtain results before returning home, while his opponents must ensure they can properly document negative tests prior to entering the state.
Ganot said the advantage his team has right now is that it might not play its first games until December or later. The delay offers a window for Hawai'i to solidify its new regulations and have access to more cost-effective tests that would eliminate any concerns about the 72-hour window for visitors. These new measures could help restore economic gains Hawai'i is accustomed to enjoying during the holiday season, as Hawai'i is a state that relies on tourism.
Hawai'i basketball is a major program on the islands, which treat the school's athletic programs like professional teams and contribute to Hawai'i's athletic department budget. The women's volleyball program boasts an average attendance near 6,000, a top-five mark in the country. The football team, which competes in the Mountain West, averages more than 23,000 fans per game. Hawai'i men's basketball brought in 114,333 fans total for 20 home games last season. At UC Davis, another Big West program, 60% of the athletics budget is funded by student fees compared to 3% at Hawai'i, per Knight Commission data. But Hawai'i also faces a $9.3 million budget deficit because of the pandemic.
Officials in Hawai'i, however, have been diligent about avoiding the obstacles some states have encountered. In mid-May, the islands announced they had zero active cases. But the numbers have modestly increased in recent months, and health care advocates anticipate an increase in cases as visitors arrive en masse to escape the cold air on the mainland. The state recorded a high of 354 cases on Aug. 15, but on Oct. 5 the number had gone down to 50.
"If we experience a surge in new infections, particularly among our residents, we are quite vulnerable because of our geographic remoteness," said Catherine Pirkle, an associate professor of health policy management at the University of Hawai'i. "While we have excellent hospitals and providers, they are limited in capacity. The recent surge in cases already put enormous stress on our health system. The distance between us and other states makes it harder for us to get reinforcements. It also makes it expensive for us to get supplies and equipment."
Ganot said he is a naturally positive person. He has endured the typical inconveniences during the pandemic, but he has also watched friends on the islands lose their businesses amid the financial turmoil that local officials intend to resolve with new rules that aim to boost tourism. While he awaits the changes, he continues to plan and prepare for the season and add some home games prior to Big West play. But he understands his team's plans are subject to the decisions of others.
"There's this antsy feeling you have as a competitor to get back on the court, to get back on the floor, but there are a lot of people involved," Ganot said. "This tests your patience, but you're looking to be rewarded for your patience."