High school athletes will no longer need to wear face coverings during outdoor competitions, the Maine Principals’ Association announced Wednesday – but some schools aren’t ready to take that step.
The MPA’s decision came a day after Gov. Janet Mills said masks are no longer mandated outdoors in Maine.
The timing of Wednesday’s announcement – which came only an hour or two before many schools were scheduled to begin games – put school administrations in a difficult position, said Susan Robbins, the athletic director at Gray-New Gloucester. Robbins was quick to use Twitter to announce that masks were still required on the school’s campus.
“Speaking from someone with boots on the ground, there’s a lot of logistical stuff blowing up,” Robbins said. “It puts a lot of pressure on us and we’re still in a pandemic and infection rates are through the roof, worse than it has been.”
Geoff Godo, the athletic director at Mt. Ararat in Topsham, said in an email that his school district will need to decide if athletes at the school can go without masks.
“Until specific direction from the school district comes, masking and social distancing remain in effect for and around all (Mt. Ararat) athletic activities.”
As part of its policy changes, the MPA announced that:
• Masks are not required for outdoor practices and competitions. Masks are recommended when 6 feet of physical distance is hard to maintain, such as for athletes on the bench. They are also required when individuals go inside to use locker rooms or restrooms, or when on a bus.
• Spectators are not required to wear a mask at outside events if they are able to maintain 6 feet of distancing.
MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham said the new rules for face coverings are “taken directly from the Community Sports Guidelines,” and that school districts have the right to enforce their own COVID-19 protocols.
The Community Sports Guidelines were updated on the state’s website later in the afternoon. They state that “Masks are not required for outdoor practices and competitions but are recommended when 6 feet of physical distance is hard to maintain (e.g. athletes on the bench). They are required when individuals go inside (e.g., to locker rooms or rest rooms).”
Regarding indoor sports, “Masks are required indoors for all individuals during practice and competition, including athletes, coaches, staff, officials, and spectators,” according to the updated state guidelines.
Some athletic directors took note of the changes and immediately applied them.
Eric Curtis of Bonny Eagle had teams playing baseball in Biddeford and softball in Gorham. He checked with the athletic directors of both schools to make sure everyone was on the same page.
“This kind of puts us back to what we were doing in the fall, where kids can play without wearing masks,” Curtis said. “I still expect coaches to wear masks on the sidelines and we’re asking kids to wear them in the bench areas.”
Yarmouth Athletic Director David Creech quickly shared updated guidelines with his coaches who were holding practices Wednesday afternoon and called Cape Elizabeth Athletic Director Jeff Thoreck to ask about protocols for girls’ lacrosse matches. They agreed to allow players on the field to compete without wearing masks.
Mike LeGage of Scarborough and Joe Schwartzman of Kennebunk both said the MPA announcement came too late in the day to fully digest and discuss possible changes with staff, administration and health officials. So at Kennebunk’s softball game with Traip Academy, everyone wore masks.
“Luckily, it’s a cold day,” Schwartzman said, “and the kids don’t seem to mind.”
The same was true for a track meet in Scarborough, where LeGage told his coaches to maintain the status quo and that he would send an update on Thursday.
“We’ll be thinking about that and figuring out what we can do,” he said. “My guess is that we’re probably going to follow the MPA guidelines.”
In Freeport, Craig Sickels took a similar tack. He first wanted approval from the local school board, which had a meeting scheduled for Wednesday night, before changing protocol.
Freeport hosted a junior varsity softball game Wednesday against Cape Elizabeth, with a mask mandate still in place. That meant softball players from Cape Elizabeth wore masks, but Cape girls’ lacrosse players weren’t required to do so for their home game against Yarmouth.
Cony senior baseball player Kyle Douin said after a game against Lawrence on Wednesday he was excited to no longer mask up during games.
“Before the game, our AD, Mr. (Jon) Millett, came out and told us and it was like Christmas,” he said. “We were all so excited. It was just awesome to finally feel a little bit of normality in a season that’s been very unnormal, abnormal.”
Some athletes elected to wear masks Wednesday, even with the option to do without.
“For me, I’ve gotten used to wearing a mask through basketball season, so I’d figure I’d keep wearing it,” said Carrabec baseball player Luke Carey, whose team played at Richmond. “I think it’s good that we have the option as long as we are following the rules.”
Thornton Academy senior midfielder Hazel Stoddard was one of several girls’ lacrosse players at the Saco school to keep wearing a mask. She called it a “personal preference. It doesn’t bother me, so I decided to keep wearing it.”
Her coach, Craig Agreste, said the Thornton administration is leaving it up to each athlete whether to wear a mask or not. “For me, this is exciting,” he said. “It gives them another sense of normalcy. It’s been a long time.”
Thornton Academy’s softball team had a home game with Windham, which had not received clearance to take masks off. Many of the Thornton players were maskless in the field, but wore the mask while hitting.
“I think it’s amazing,” Thornton senior Abby Miner said of the decision. “I have really bad asthma, so when I’m pitching or playing first, it’s relieving me of so much stress. I can actually breathe now. It’s amazing that we can see everyone smiling again.”
Falmouth girls’ lacrosse coach Ashley Pullen said removing the mask mandate makes sense.
“I do think so because we’re outside, and with the nature of our sport, players are spread out,” Pullen said. “I think for those reasons, it’s the right decision. I think it makes sense to look at science in terms of where the spread is happening and everything I’ve read, there’s not a lot of spread happening outside.”
Burnham pointed out the new face covering rule will not change how quarantining and contact tracing is conducted.
“With or without a face mask, if there’s a positive case on the opposing team, your team will be required to quarantine,” Burnham said.
Staff writers Glenn Jordan and Mike Lowe, Central Maine Newspapers staff writer Drew Bonifant and The Times Record staff writer Eli Canfield contributed to this story.