When the state agencies tasked with establishing protocols for Maine school athletics issued its guidelines earlier this month, they strongly recommended that all indoor sports require athletes wear masks but came short of mandating them.
As the state continues to cope with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, those decisions are now being made at the local level. Many schools will require their athletes and spectators to wear masks at all times indoors, while others are also instituting crowd capacity restrictions and other measures to hold a winter sports season with as few interruptions as possible.
Bangor, Orono and Houlton are among the schools that will require their athletes to be masked at all times during competition.
In Brewer, athletic director Dave Utterback said student-athletes who are actively participating in a game won’t have to wear masks.
“Everyone will be masked except the players running up and down the court,” he said, noting it will also be the case for several Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference schools.
Fans will be allowed at games at each school but they will all have to be masked.
Houlton and Calais won’t restrict the number of spectators but Orono, Brewer and Bangor will monitor their crowds.
In Brewer, vouchers will be handed out to each team at four games to keep the crowd at a manageable size for staff to monitor and enforce COVID-10 protocols. Those games have the highest potential for large crowds, Utterback said, and include boys basketball home games against Skowhegan, Nokomis of Newport and Hampden Academy, and the season-opening hockey game against Bangor.
For basketball games, the total crowd cannot exceed 600 people with Brewer voucher tickets for basketball. Every member of the roster for those Brewer teams will be issued unlimited vouchers so their families and friends can attend. Each person on the opposing team’s roster will receive a voucher allowing up to four friends or family members to purchase tickets.
The game day staff isn’t large enough to enforce safety guidelines if the crowd gets too large, Utterback said.
Similarly, Bangor athletic director Steve Vanidestine said the school will limit the number of fans if it expects a capacity crowd so that it can “achieve reasonable safe distancing.” Orono would implement a similar plan, but athletic director Mike Archer does not anticipate crowds being large enough that it would be necessary based on his research of turnouts for games three and four years ago.
The use of outside venues complicates matters slightly.
For example, the Old Town-Orono coop hockey team plays at the University of Maine’s Alfond Arena. University rules require any player, coach, fan or official who is involved in an indoor event with at least 250 people must provide proof of vaccination or produce proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the competition.
“So we are going to limit the number of people at our hockey games to 249,” including players and coaches, Archer said.
That won’t be possible at Eastern Maine Indoor Track League meets in the field house at UMaine because the athletes and coaches alone will exceed 250.
It will be up to Archer and Utterback, the co-chairmen of the league, to make sure they have adequate staff to check the proof of vaccination and COVID tests for all athletes, support staff and fans.
Under UMaine guidelines, the track athletes will be allowed to participate without masks during their events but will have to wear them when they aren’t involved. However, the athletic directors of the Eastern Maine Indoor Track League schools could still mandate that all athletes wear masks when they participate.
Archer sympathizes with athletes who have to wear masks but said it is essential to try to keep them safe.
“It’s worth the inconvenience for their safety and to ensure that they can play,” Archer said.
Guidelines issued by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month will require players to wear masks for all athletic tournaments, “so it makes sense to have them masked up during the regular season,” Archer said.
In scenarios where a team with a no-mask policy is scheduled to play a team that requires masks, a compromise will have to be reached.
“I think it would go in favor of the more restrictive team,” Utterback said, meaning that in such a scenario it’s likely all student-athletes would have to wear masks during competition.
Such is the policy established in Calais. Student-athletes will not be required to wear masks at practice or in competition, unless the team is facing a school that does enforce a mask policy. In that scenario, the Calais team will wear masks, too, according to athletic director Randy Morrison.
“Superintendents are already saying that their [masked] teams will not play teams that aren’t masked,” Houlton athletic director Jon Solomon said.
Archer predicted a “difficult” winter, but noted that it only made sense to extend the mask policy that students abide by inside during school hours to after school activities, too.
“Kids are masked up in school all day so how can you justify allowing them to take it off to play a sport?”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect updated guidelines in Calais, in which student-athletes will not be required to wear masks while competing unless playing a team that has a mask mandate.