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When Masks Are Mandated, Who is Responsible for Enforcing Them?

29 Jan, 2021

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Mandating masks mandates is one thing. But enforcing that mandate is another, as some youth sports officials are finding out.

In Pennsylvania, high school officials were told they are not responsible for making sure student athletes wear their masks properly in competition.

The Williamsport Sun-Gazette reports that officials in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) are being told PIAA executive director Dr. Robert Lombardi said it is not the purview of officials to worry about masks. Lombardi further noted that officials are to judge only the action on the court or wrestling mat.

Officials have found themselves frustrated by a lack of direction from the PIAA. The newspaper article noted that according to rules, enforcement of the masking rules is to be handled by the competition’s game manager, which is often the home team’s athletics director.

Lombardi said the PIAA supports the order issued by the state’s Department of Health which requires athletes to wear masks while competing. He also said they will continue to defer to the state’s orders on the subject. Lombardi also said these are the mandates for only now, hinting there may be changes in the masking orders for the postseason.

“It’s not a choice for individuals to say, ‘I’m not wearing my mask today,'” Lombardi said. “The coach should instruct the players to put on their mask properly if that is their policy. We want to keep everybody safe, that’s why we’re not opposed to the mask rule. We just want to do it at the optimum level to make sure everyone is safe.”

While it’s easy to kick the can down the road, as it were, concerning who is responsible for enforcing masks, wearing them remains, oddly, a point of contention, and in many cases, has become political in nature. Some fans embrace the regulation and consider masks and social distancing to be part of the cost of having live events running again.

Others, well… not so much. And although pro sports have the ability to use security workers to help enforce health regulations (among these, mask wearing), smaller events don’t. Coaches who are working with teams generally don’t have time to address crowds and if, as the PIAA says, officials should be keeping their eyes on the court, that could leave athletic directors and school administrators to try to keep order – and they may not consider something that isn’t actually a law to fall into their jurisdiction.

Everyone from parents, volunteers, students, hourly security workers, school resource officers, school health officials and off-duty officers have been mentioned as possibilities to keep order. Unfortunately, it’s a job few people want if they are not being paid to do it – and if they are not trained in it. There have been examples of violent altercations breaking out at youth games when parents and onlookers are told to wear masks and practice social distancing.

It also raises the question of the individual or entity that bears the responsibility (and liability), should spectators or athletes become ill following a game. According to USA TODAY, Arizona was welcoming tournaments until problems arose. On December 24, the state set a single-day high of 4,226 hospitalizations, a surge attributed partially to unregulated youth sports events in the area. The city of Phoenix banned youth tournaments on Dec. 2, two weeks after nearly 800 youth sports teams from dozens of states converged on Maricopa County on the weekend of Nov. 20.

“We have several outbreaks that we have associated with club sports and clubs sporting events,” Marcy Flanagan, executive director of Maricopa County Public Health, said in an interview.

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, noted that it is not the athletes, but parents who create unsafe conditions, including crowding together closely on sidelines and in stands, disregarding mask requirements and rendering moot municipal mitigation guidelines.

“The vast majority of the parents are completely ignoring the masks,” said Humble, “and it showed up all autumn in the contact tracing not just in high school, but club sports. It caused tons of spread. And there’s no governing body to control. In Arizona, when you rent the field, you have to have a mitigation plan you file with the city and Department of Health, but there’s no enforcement. So it’s a joke.”

If vaccination were to be widespread in time for tournaments to be held, the need for masks and social distancing might not be as pressing. However, USA TODAY notes that reaching herd immunity in order to allow venues to accommodate capacity crowds may prove elusive. Dr. Anthony Fauci recently estimated that 85 percent of the population would need to get vaccinated to achieve immunity, while a recent Associated Press poll indicated 25 percent of Americans won't accept the vaccine when offered.

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