Individual schools must decide if athletes wear masks for competition, PIAA says

Wednesday, November 18, 2020 | 11:28 AM

Could wearing a mask during a football game or soccer match be considered an unsafe condition?

How about for a wrestler or swimmer?

The PIAA strongly opposes a mandate from Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration ordering athletes across Pennsylvania to wear masks during competitions indoors and out, but will leave the decision to individual districts. The PIAA board met Wednesday and urged school solicitors to consider the exceptions written into the mandate implemented Tuesday by state Secretary of Health Rachel Levine.

The universal mask mandate was ordered as a mitigation effort for coronavirus spread.

Athletes won’t require masks if their school decides they fit an exception, PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said. If they don’t fit, then athletes must wear them immediately, according to the mandate, starting with teams taking part in various state playoffs and championships this week.

“The board felt that this assessment should be done by each local school because they have not only their own health and safety plans, they know the condition of their students,” Lombardi said.

The PIAA took a similar approach in August when it let individual schools decide whether to play sports against Wolf’s recommendation.

One exception to the mask mandate says: “If wearing a face covering while working would create an unsafe condition in which to operate equipment or execute a task as determined by local, state or federal regulators or workplace safety guidelines.”

Another says: “If wearing 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.”

The PIAA staff unsuccessfully reached out to Wolf administration for clarification, Lombardi said. In July, Levine said athletes were not required to wear masks during competition.

Game officials will be told to wear masks unless they meet one of the exemptions.

The PIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee has opposed the use of masks during competition as a safety issue.

Lombardi said the SMAC was concerned about students with exercise-induced asthma, diminished oxygenation and the retention of carbon dioxide. There also is a chance a mask falls off and someone slips, he added.

The mask mandate affects more than the PIAA.

PIHL commissioner John Mucha said his hockey league will ask teams to follow the mandate, meaning players should wear face coverings on the ice during games and practices. The PIHL executive committee planned to meet and finalize its policy Wednesday night.

“It can be a challenge, absolutely,” Mucha said. “That being said, the only options from what they’re telling us is we can follow the Department of Health’s mandate or not play. It’s hard, but we want to give the kids an opportunity to play while trying to ensure their health the best we can.”

The Wolf administration addressed athletics under the mask mandate in a series of Frequently Asked Questions posted on the state’s website.

Does the Order apply to athletes and sports activities?

Yes. Everyone who participates in sport activities including coaches, athletes (including cheerleaders), and spectators must wear a face covering, such as a mask, unless they fall under an exception in Section 3 of the Order.

Indoors: Coaches, athletes (including cheerleaders), and spectators must wear face coverings, when indoors and where another person or persons who are not members of the individual’s household are present in the same space, irrespective of physical distance. This includes while actively engaged in workouts, competition, and on the sidelines, etc.

Outdoors: 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. If sustained six-foot distancing can be maintained, face coverings may be removed when outdoors.

The situation will become more complicated Friday when winter sports are scheduled to start practice. For instance, must swimmers wear a mask in the pool?

That’s unclear under the mandate, so the PIAA is seeking guidance from the health department on that question and others.

“We’ve got a serious issue when it comes to swimming,” PIAA associate executive director Melissa Mertz said. “We’re definitely going to push for some clarification. I’m not sure all of the sports were thought out when that (mandate) was put in there.”

WPIAL executive director Amy Scheuneman, who urged schools to remain patient, questioned whether the requirements will be followed by professional and college sports.

“Are the Steelers wearing a mask on Sunday?” she said. “Are the Eagles? Is Pitt? Is Penn State? Are these colleges wearing masks or are there considerations (given to them)? So we’re trying to get clarification and plead our case.”

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, the Steelers said they received word from the governor’s office that their players would be exempt from the mask mandate during games, but that all other teams personnel and fans in the Heinz Field stands would be required to wear one.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at or via Twitter .

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