Pennsylvania reverses course on Steelers mask mandate, says football players exempt

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The State of Pennsylvania on Friday clarified its new mask mandate, saying that football players, “whether professional or youth,” while competing on the field, are exempt for medical reasons.

The new interpretation comes one day after Governor Tom Wolf’s press secretary said the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of several high-profile football teams in the state, were not exempt from the latest COVID-19 protocols.

Those protocols, issued Tuesday, would have required Steelers players and their opponents to wear masks at all times, including while on the field. The University of Pittsburgh, which hosts Virginia Tech Saturday, said its players would comply.

But the state changed its tune Friday, pointing to section 3 of its order on face coverings. “Wearing a mask in addition to a mouth guard and a helmet would likely create a medical issue for the athlete,” the new guidance reads. It cites CDC guidelines, which say that “wearing a mask with these types of protective equipment is not safe if it makes it hard to breathe.”

Pennsylvania’s guidance now reads, in full:

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.

The clarification seems to exempt not just the Steelers, but all Pennsylvania college and high school players, from mask requirements while on the field of play. Penn State had also previously claimed that its football players were exempt. Pitt and Virginia Tech will no longer be required to comply.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin celebrates as he walks off the field following a win over the Cincinnati Bengals during an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has been a consistent mask wearer, but his players won't have to while on the field. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Would a mask mandate for football players make sense?

The mandate, experts told Yahoo Sports, would indeed have lessened the risk of on-field transmission of the coronavirus. Masks have proven to limit, though not prevent, COVID-19 spread. And "there is no reason to believe that the breathing in football is any different from normal breathing,” Emory University epidemiologist Zachary Binney said. “If anything, it's worse, because it's harder. So there's no reason I can think of why masks would not be helpful.”

But in the narrow context of the Steelers and Penn State, doctors said, the mandate would be relatively inconsequential. Its impact on public health would be “largely negligible.” It would slash risk from slim to even slimmer. "I feel like maybe we're in more-disruptive-than-it's-worth territory,” Binney said of the on-field mask requirement, “simply because the probability of somebody infectious getting on the field is so low." Both the NFL and Big Ten test players daily. That allows them to identify most – though not all – players who have the virus and are capable of spreading it.

"We're always trying to balance risks and benefits here,” Binney said. The on-field mandate, “if it makes it more difficult for these guys to breathe ... that seems like maybe further than we would need to go. There's more of an argument for it in college, and certainly at the youth and high school level” – where players aren’t being tested anywhere close to everyday.

In fact, the main utility of a Steelers mandate might have been the message it sent, experts said. Kathleen Bachynski, an epidemiologist at Muhlenberg College, calls it “role-modeling for the public.” Millions of Pennsylvanians watch the Steelers every week. The thought is, if Ben Roethlisberger wearing a mask under center convinced some tiny fraction of everyday citizens to wear a mask, that could be beneficial to public health. “I think it does help normalize it for some people,” Binney said. “And that’s really good.”

That message, however, can be sent from the sideline. On the field, the mandate won’t affect the Steelers of Philadelphia Eagles. It won’t affect the Philadelphia Union, who host a Major League Soccer playoff game next week, either. But not because they get special treatment as pros – simply because mask-wearing might inhibit performance, or come with its own medical risks during high-exertion sports.

“There are no exemptions for specific sports, leagues, teams, or levels,” Pennsylvania’s guidance reads. “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.”

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