Steelers now exempt from Pennsylvania mask mandate under new guidance

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We’ve seen masks on the sidelines and in the stands during NFL games this season, but not on the field.

Under one interpretation of a new Pennsylvania mandate, the Pittsburgh Steelers appeared set to wear masks during games this season, starting on Thanksgiving.

But on Friday, an updated interpretation of the mandate makes it clear they won’t have to.

State, Steelers disagreed on exemption

The office of Gov. Tom Wolf issued a new order regarding face coverings this week. Masks are required indoors and outdoors when people aren’t able to maintain social distancing. Athletes are included in that “if they cannot maintain sustained physical distance from persons outside of their household.” It is for everyone “actively engaged in workouts, competition, and on the sidelines, in the dugout, etc.”

As of Thursday, the Governor’s office and the Steelers disagreed on whether that applied to professional football players. On Wednesday, Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten said the team was exempted from the mask order.

The statement, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, said: “We have received guidance from the Governor’s Office that our players are exempt from wearing masks during an NFL game. All other personnel working at an NFL game are required to wear masks. In addition, we will continue to enforce our protocols that require all fans entering Heinz Field to wear a mask.”

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, center, wears a mask as he talks to players on the sideline. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin wears a mask as he talks to players on the sideline. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

There must have been a miscommunication somewhere because the governor’s office on Thursday said that is not the case. Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf’s press secretary, said in an email to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that “the administration did not grant an exemption.”

Then, on Friday, it effectively did.

Pennsylvania clarifies mask guidance

Lauten told the Tribune-Review on Thursday that the team is covered under Section 3 of the Secretary of Health’s Universal Face Covering Order, which provides exemptions for athletes that include “respiratory issues that impede breathing.”

On Friday, the state adopted that interpretation. The updated guidance reads:

Can an athlete remove their mask during play if the mask causes a medical condition, including respiratory issues that impede breathing?

Yes, the Order provides an exception in section 3 that provides that 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 order indicates all alternatives to wearing a face covering, including the use of a face shield, should be exhausted before an individual is excepted from this Order.

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. 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.

According to Section 3, the athlete would be asked to work through alternatives that would reduce or eliminate the respiratory droplets that would impact others in proximity. If the sport, equipment, or exertion level does not allow for face covering to be worn safely then the athlete should not wear a face covering.

There are no exemptions for specific sports, leagues, teams, or levels. We know that some people don't like masks. We are asking everyone to please give this their best effort so we can continue these activities and others as we all unite to fight COVID-19.

So the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens will be masked up on the sidelines, and in their locker rooms on Thursday, just like college and high school football players in Pennsylvania. But they won’t be required to wear face coverings while competing on the field.

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