The state of Pennsylvania on Friday backtracked from a portion of tightened coronavirus protocols issued earlier in the week that would have required many of the state’s professional and college athletes to wear masks even during competition.
In an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine on Tuesday released the new requirements for state residents. Among the mandates was an order that people wear masks when “outdoors with others who are not members of a person’s household and unable to maintain sustained physical distance.”
A state-issued FAQ that accompanied the mandate detailed the requirements for those participating in sports.
“Coaches, athletes (including cheerleaders), and spectators must wear face coverings if they cannot maintain sustained physical distance from persons outside of their household. This includes while actively engaged in workouts, competition, and on the sidelines, in the dugout, etc.,” the FAQ reads.
The NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and NCAA’s Penn State Nittany Lions declared they were exempt from the mandate, causing confusion over the new requirements.
At issue was a list of exemptions in Levine’s order, including one for when “a face covering would either cause a medical condition, or exacerbate an existing one, including respiratory issues that impede breathing, a mental health condition or a disability.” On Wednesday, Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten said the exemptions applied to the NFL team’s players during games.
“We have received guidance from the Governor’s Office that our players are exempt from wearing masks during an NFL game,” Lauten said.
On Thursday, Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger told ABC 27 in Pittsburgh that the Steelers “were not granted an exemption.” In an email to The Washington Post on Friday, however, Kensinger said athletes should not wear masks “if the sport, equipment, or exertion level does not allow for face covering to be worn safely.”
“Using football as an example, wearing a mask in addition to a mouth guard and a helmet would likely create a medical issue for the athlete whether the athlete is a professional or youth player even if a previous medical issue was not present,” Kensinger said. “For example, the CDC says that ‘wearing a mask with these types of protective equipment is not safe if it makes it hard to breathe.’
“There are other sports where there are similar concerns that a mask would create a medical issue where one would otherwise not exist in an athlete. For example, it should also be obvious that wearing a mask while swimming presents an imminent health issue.”
Before Kensinger’s email to The Post, the University of Pittsburgh announced Friday that both its football team and the Panthers’ opponent, Virginia Tech, will wear masks while playing Saturday’s game at Heinz Field. It’s unclear whether that remains the case now that the football teams have an apparent exemption.
“In alignment with the recent guidance from state officials regarding the current health climate, Pitt’s football team will be appropriately outfitted for Saturday’s game with face coverings to use on the field and sideline,” the school said in a statement. “This is being communicated to Virginia Tech’s sports medicine staff as well.”
But Penn State, whose football team is schedule to host Iowa on Saturday afternoon, said in a statement early Friday afternoon that it was exempt from the in-game mask mandate because the order includes “limited exceptions for competition to be played without face coverings in the context of rigorous and stringent University and Big Ten testing, health and safety protocols.” Such an exception, for testing, is not listed in the state’s mask mandate, however.
In her email to The Post, Kensinger said athletes who cannot wear masks during games will “be asked to work through alternatives that would reduce or eliminate the respiratory droplets that would impact others in proximity.” The new Pennsylvania mandate says plastic shields may be used as face coverings, as long as they cover “the nose and mouth,” extend “below the chin and to the ears” and leave “no exposed gap between the forehead and the shield’s headpiece.” Some NFL players have worn face shields that attach to their helmets, which satisfy the NFL requirement for mask use during practice, but others don’t like the shields because they create breathing issues.
A number of NFL players have tested positive for the coronavirus, though no games have been canceled. Based on contact tracing and genomic sequencing, league officials maintain they have seen no evidence of on-field transmission of the virus during games. Even so, NFL players must wear masks before and after games, and it’s recommended they do so on the sideline during games. (The Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers and their opponents are required to wear face coverings on the sideline per local mandates in New York and California.)
NFL players also are now required to wear masks anytime they are in team facilities, including on the practice field.
Michigan, which also has NFL and major college football teams within its borders, has a similar mask mandate for athletic teams. In September, however, the legal counsel for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said pro athletes in competition were exempt from the mandate because of their leagues’ “very rigorous protocols.” Whitmer’s office also said face shields were considered a sufficient face covering for college football players.
The Steelers’ next home game is Thanksgiving night against the Baltimore Ravens, and the Philadelphia Eagles play at home four nights later against the Seattle Seahawks.