High school athletes in Maine are required to wear face masks this fall while on the sidelines, but not during competition. That would change for most sports this winter, if there is a season. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald Buy this Photo

If high school sports are played in Maine this winter, nearly all athletes will have to wear face coverings during competition.

The Maine Principals’ Association’s Sports Medicine Committee met Wednesday to discuss the prospects for a winter season during the coronavirus pandemic and to review initial feedback from key state agencies on some proposals made by MPA sport subcommittees.

Most notable was a clear message that, as is the case for students and staff during the school day, athletes will be expected to wear masks at all times.

“That’s something the governor’s office, the (Department of Education) and (Department of Health and Human Services) have been adamant about,” said Gordie Salls, athletic director at Sanford High and a member of the Sports Medicine Committee. “If you’re indoors, you’re wearing a mask. That hasn’t changed. There’s no change from the fall to now.”

Other key points addressed during Wednesday’s meeting was the recognition that no fans will be allowed for winter sports and that if a county is determined to be in the “yellow” category by the DOE, schools will not have the option to continue with athletic participation.

The news was first reported Wednesday by WMTW’s Travis Lee.

Students and staff are required to wear masks at all times while in school buildings. But athletes have not had to wear masks while competing in outdoor sports activities this fall, including moderate contact sports like soccer, field hockey and 7-on-7 flag football.

Swimmers will not be asked to wear masks in the pool, but Nordic and Alpine skiers will, even though their sports are conducted outside.

“The CDC and DHHS want us to require face masks for all winter sports during practice and competition, which is a change from where it was in the fall and certainly we can understand their reasoning, not that we necessarily agree with it,” said Dr. William Heinz, the chair of the Sports Medicine Committee. “We’re going to ask the state to see if we can get them to not require masks for Alpine and Nordic skiing, especially Nordic skiing.”

Heinz and Salls both emphasized that no decisions were made Wednesday on when sports might begin, or which sports will be offered.

“We’re not setting the time schedule,” for sports to begin, Heinz said. “We’re going to let the state decide when it’s OK to set practices and then competition. My suspicion is sports will not start until after the holidays, even for practice. It’s completely up in the air at this point.”

The MPA announced last week that it was delaying the start of winter sports’ practice, which was originally set for Nov. 16.

The MPA typically offers basketball, hockey, indoor track, swimming, skiing, wrestling, competitive cheering and unified basketball as winter sports.

DHHS, led by Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, has not yet offered its review of the MPA sport committee recommendations for wrestling, indoor track and competitive cheering.

While no decisions on an individual sport have been made, Heinz said he is doubtful wrestling will be given the go-ahead.

“If you look at U.S. Wrestling regulations, they want the kids to be in a bubble and tested, like the professional sports did, and that’s not feasible, at least in Maine,” Heinz said.

The ongoing process of deciding how to safely offer some winter sports in Maine is happening while the state is experiencing an unprecedented surge in daily reported COVID-19 cases. For the third time in six days, Maine set a record-high Wednesday with 151 positive cases, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Also, Governor Janet Mills has reduced the indoor gathering limit from 100 (or 50 percent capacity, whichever is less) to 50 people.

No fans will be allowed at high school events this winter.

“And that’s going to be across the board. We don’t really have control over the outdoor venues, but we are going to put in the recommendation that no fans are allowed,” Heinz said.

During the fall, almost every school affected by a county-wide “yellow” status, indicating an increased risk of virus transmission, halted athletic activities. But there were a few outliers, notably Fyreburg Academy, which took advantage of language in the DOE document that allowed schools to make a local decision. Heinz said that wording loophole is expected to be expunged when the state-issued guidelines are updated.

On Tuesday, Vermont announced that its plan for winter sports would include athletes wearing masks at all times for basketball, hockey, skiing, snowboarding, bowling and dance. Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island required athletes to wear masks this fall for outdoor activities.

Vermont has already indicated it will not allow wrestling or indoor track. Vermont’s plan calls for practices to begin Nov. 30, with first competitive games allowed on Jan. 11.

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