Sand volleyball player with ball in the air
Cornhuskers State Games volleyball action (Ashley Kramer Photo)

The Cornhusker State Games (CSG) bring thousands together in Nebraska every year for an amateur sports festival.

This year’s iteration of the games began last weekend. However, in the middle of a pandemic, the event looks different. 

With the sheer size of the event and locations across Nebraska, there are obstacles in holding such an event safely. However, Nebraska Sports Council executive director Dave Mlnarik said it was important to create a plan and go through with it.

“We have a mission and a passion for providing opportunities for people to do things that are fun and healthy,” Mlnarik said. “And we obviously have safety paramount in all of our decision making, so we’ve just followed along as the COVID measures, the disease itself, has progressed.”

Mlnarik said that the goal is to make the Cornhusker State Games “as safe or safer than someone going to the grocery store.” He said that he believes this goal has been achieved, and the games will be a safe environment for everyone. 

Leading up to the games, Mlnarik and his team had to make plans about how they would make the event as safe as possible. With the coronavirus situation changing by the day in Nebraska, they had to keep an eye out and be flexible. 

“It’s no fun really. It’s the uncertainty and planning things several different ways at the same time,” he said. “And again, we’re not any different than all businesses and organizations in this day and age but just because what we do is fun, we put on fun doesn’t make the planning and preparation very fun at all. We’re in the same boat as everyone else.”

The CSG started last weekend. While there weren’t as many events as there will be on July 18 and 19, things went well, according to director of operations Scott Ash. 

“Our first weekend was very smooth,” Ash said. “Obviously, there was a lot of unknowns going in. But our staff and our medical and safety team did a great job getting prepped for the COVID-19 issues that we needed to prepare for.”

However, the games won’t be able to operate in full capacity. According to the website for the games, events such as hockey, baseball and wrestling were postponed or canceled. In deciding which sports would and would not be canceled, three main factors were in play: density, intensity and the venue.

“You can pretty much take a look at our sport list and you can work out which ones have dense and intense contact,” Mlnarik said. “Obviously, those that are outdoors, I mean, everything’s really pretty much on outdoors, because it’s easy to dilute that air or move it so that it’s not breathed by another person. When it’s outdoors, any contact with surfaces is much more minimal.”

Along with that, sections of certain sports were canceled as well. For example, for basketball and softball, all events are set to proceed except the youth competitions, which are open to those 18 and under. These cancellations were caused by demand and scheduling conflicts. With sports starting up again across Nebraska, youth teams ended up not participating in the games due to other events, such as qualifying events, according to Mlnarik.

CSG’s medical and safety team helped out to make these decisions on which events to cancel and how the games would proceed safely. The process of making sure the games are safe is ongoing, according to Mlnarik. He said that the team didn’t start making specific measures for each event location until about 30 days ago, as they were still in the process of deciding which events would happen up until that point.

Along with that, the staff has received help from the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. 

“They’ve really helped us fine tune that and say, ‘Oh, you already have sanitizers at every entrance, but you might need sanitizers over here near the restrooms,’” Mlnarik said. “Or, you know, just little things like that.” 

Along with making sure the venues have adequate supplies such as hand sanitizer, they have tried to reduce crowds as much as possible. One measure that they took was not charging admission, which eliminated some of the lines and contact with money, according to Mlnarik. On top of that, every event is different and therefore requires different protocols.

“It’s just been really kind of event-by-event, sport-by-sport, taking the common sense approach with what’s known today, and doing everything we can,” Mlnarik said. “In some cases, it means volunteers who have to come around wiping or policing social distance.”

Moving into next weekend, Ash said the staff has learned some things. He said they could put up more signs to remind attendees of the safety guidelines. He said one of the most important things moving forward is that people are respectful and check themselves to see if they have symptoms before making the decision to attend the games.

“If you’re fearful in any way, or you suspect that there might be some symptoms, just stay home,” Ash said. “It’s not worth it. So that’s kind of the messaging we’re putting out there.”

While the process of holding the games safely has been challenging overall, Ash said their priority is to continue to provide a space for people to play sports and have a good time.

“We just want people to have fun. Obviously, that’s what we promote all the time, is sports are fun. Let’s go out and have some fun, but let’s do it in a safe way.”