Bucks County Public Health Director Dr. David Damsker sent a note to schools late last week that in essence gave them permission to let student-athletes play without masks during games this spring.
The unanswered question is whether public health departments in surrounding counties, or the schools in those counties, will follow suit.
So far, Montgomery County is not advising schools to remove masks in games. “Everyone age 2 or older must wear a face covering at all times,” the county’s school guidance sheet states.
Chester County’s Health Department, which covers both Chester and Delaware counties, had recommended school sports be delayed until at least Jan.1, 2021, but there is no recommendation for this spring’s sports.
While public health officials can only provide guidelines to school districts, the Chester County Health Department leaves the rest of the decisions to the schools. “The Chester County Health Department acknowledges the decision to resume sports-related activities, including conditioning, practice, and games, is and has always been, at the sole discretion of the school entity’s governing body,” the guidance reads.
But the Chester County Health Department recommends that schools follow the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) guidelines, which as of mid-February, require schools to fill out exemption forms for athletes not wearing a mask at sports events.
Damsker acknowledged student teams from Bucks schools that decide to let their students play without masks may well come across teams that are masked.
“The kids are already signing a waiver,” noted the public health director. “But I realize people will say that they follow the science and the science means to wear a mask. The thing is, we are following the science here.”
An athlete running while wearing a mask is going to become physically exerted quicker, which can create multiple health concerns, the doctor said. But beyond that, in many spring sports like, for example, softball, there is plenty of physical distance anyway.
“It can create an unsafe condition for a person to wear a mask while actively engaged in athletics,” he wrote in his letter the schools. “Thus, no athlete in Bucks County shall be required to wear a mask if exertion levels may reasonably create a safety issue.”
There have been multiple incidents of several athletes getting COVID at once, and Damsker said that means the events around the game – teams and families gathering for dinner, athletes hanging out in the locker room, etc – need to maintain the rules of masking and social distancing.
“It’s not happening on the field, it’s happening at dinner afterward or hanging out in the locker room…that is where we have to be careful, the events and social gatherings around a game, not the game itself.”
In his letter to the schools, Damsker said there “has been no evidence to this point of on-court/on-field transmission in Bucks County throughout the pandemic.”
Damsker noted that at a recent school sports event he attended, the students from the opposing team (a New Jersey school) did not wear masks. “New Jersey schools are not requiring students to wear masks in the games. The masks are for sitting on the bench, in the locker rooms, the way it should be.”