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MHSAA offers guidance on Governor’s new mask Executive Order: ‘It is the MHSAA’s expectation that all members comply’

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, September 10, 2020, 4:56 pm

A day after the governor’s newest executive order clarified the need for mask wearing in higher-risk fall sports, the Michigan High School Athletic Association sent guidance to schools that reinforced the notion that it wasn’t up for debate.

“It is the MHSAA’s expectation that all members comply with Executive Order 180,” the statement read. 

Executive director Mark Uyl said much the same on an appearance on “The Huge Show” radio program shortly before the guidance was sent to member schools. 

“The biggest challenge is that this isn’t a rule or a regulation of the MHSAA, so we, again, we’re going to try to provide leadership and be as helpful as we can,” Uyl said, “but ultimately we don’t have the ability to modify or ignore — or to do anything with those orders except to make sure that our policies are following those, and our member schools are doing the same.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order No. 180 came out Wednesday evening, and stipulated that masks need to be worn during game action in football, volleyball and boys soccer, but were not necessary for cross country, girls golf and boys tennis. Swimming competition was also exempt. 

“I’m not surprised to get this question. I’m glad you asked it, because I know it’s on a number of peoples’ minds. I’ll just observe that last week, when we announced $5 billion in investments, we got five questions about high school football. I know we are all passionate about sports. This is a part of who we are, part of how we come together. It’s how we support good, healthy fun as an American pastime. And yet I know that it’s important that we can engage in some of these things that make life feel a little bit more normal, but we still have to be very smart about it,” Gov. Whitmer said at her Thursday news conference, when asked what prompted the change in the mask-wearing requirement from earlier EOs.

“For our student athletes, for our families, for our educators. Every one of us has a due diligence, to do our part to make sure we get this right. Masking up is an important part of functioning in the midst of COVID-19. We know that in workplaces all across the country, people are masking up and they’re able to reengage the economy and stay safe doing that. We can reengage in some of these other ways, but we have to be smart about it. There are a number of different companies designing masks to help athletes stay safe while they are running and blocking, playing football and other sports. We believe this is one important way that we resume some football, but we’ve gotta do it with these protocols to keep people safe. That’s just really what it’s all about. 

“Same goes for anyone who is in the stands, or taking part. We still realize that the more people who come together, the more people who are projecting their voices, the more inherently risky the conduct is. We’re trying to do this, and step into it, and do it right, and hopefully we’ll be successful, but we’re counting on everybody to do their part.”

Uyl noted that all game personnel and players not in uniform or competing are expected to be wearing masks, as well — something that has been in place since July. The only small loophole is for officials during play.

“The one group of adults that we did have to give a little bit of leeway to, are officials, because two of our fall sports — football and soccer, specifically — there are times where an official has to keep up, stride-for-stride maybe with a soccer player who breaks out in front, and is going on a breakaway, or that sideline football official who has to remain close to stride-for-stride with a 17-year-old who has now broken free and is now threatening the goal line. In those cases, officials do have just a little bit of latitude, but for all those other times — during pregame, going over to check in with coaches, during a coin toss, any of those preliminary events, during a halftime, those kinds of things — officials are going to be just like anyone else: They’ll be expected to wear it,” Uyl said. “But when they’re actively officiating, when social distancing can be maintained at all times, that’s going to be the guidance that we’re giving officials.” 

The guidance also addressed the factor of ensuring compliance, noting that the game officials have no role in enforcing the mandate, a duty which falls upon school administrators.

“There are no provisions in EO 180 for medical intolerance reasons or medical waivers. This is not an MHSAA regulation, and thus the MHSAA has no legal authority to waive or modify this Executive order from the Governor’s office,” the document read in one portion, while at the bottom, it reinforced this message:

“The MHSAA will attempt to assist schools in understanding these requirements but know the MHSAA has no authority to waive, ignore or modify Executive Orders for any reason.”

As it is, the allowance for the resumption of contact sports was a decision that ran contrary to the recommendation of the Michigan Department of Heath and Human Services. 

“We understand that wearing a mask makes it less comfortable to participate in a sport. We also understand that there’s some data — I would not say that it’s proven, but there’s some data — that shows that the respiratory, the parameters, if you will … I’m trying to keep the language simple … that the respiratory rates could potentially increase if you’re wearing a mask during exercising. But we do not have any proof that someone cannot exercise … and if they can’t, then frankly, then maybe they won’t be able to participate, unfortunately, at this time,” the state’s Chief Medical Executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, said at Thursday’s news conference. “But for contact sports, it is recommended, given where we are, for COVID-19 cases across the state, it’s recommended to wear a mask, and if someone is unable to, they may not be able to participate at this time.”

Uyl noted that there are multiple options for face coverings, which for football does include a shield attached to the facemask.

“The guidance that we’re giving schools — again, we didn’t get any input into the order; we have no ability to waive, or ignore or modify the order — but what we’re able to do is give our schools some guidance, and that guidance is that currently any secured face covering that is made of cloth or fabric — the old-school mask that hooks around your ears — that’s going to comply with EO 180. Anything of the variety of the neck gaiter, a face covering that can be pulled up over the nose and the mouth area, that would be another form of that legal face covering. When it comes to the one fall sport where helmets are worn, a full — I think they’re called “splash shields” or “splash guard” — any helmet that has the full shield on, which goes from the top of the facemask to the bottom of the facemask, our guidance is that will also comply,” he said. “And then our guidance is that some items that would attach to the facemask, that actually are made of cloth that do cover the nose and mouth area, that’s actually affixed to the inside of the helmet, that would comply as well. I know there are some other products out there that haven’t reached our office yet, but we are giving guidance out to schools yet this afternoon that will hopefully give some direction to items which, right now, aren’t completely clear in a number of different (EOs).”

There may be some future additions to the guidelines as different scenarios arise. Uyl was asked about the possibility of a timeout added to the game to allow participants to slide their masks off and catch their breath. 

“We were just having that what-if conversation here with some staff members and a mask timeout is one suggestion. So that could absolutely be one time where there could be an added timeout. … That could be something that officials and game management could spell out in advance. Certainly we wouldn’t want that to be at the end of the fourth quarter, say in football, where a team is out of timeouts and wants to stop the clock. It needs to be in established and set times that make some sense, but absolutely that could be a way, or another example of a COVID accommodation, here as we work our way through fall sports in these most unusual times,” Uyl said, noting that there could be times in-game where an athlete could slide their mask down to catch their breath, as well. 

“I think there has to be some common sense that enters into any situation, and certainly that one makes an awful lot of sense. How about during football, during a timeout, you head over to the sideline, I would think the mask would need to be pulled down or removed so a student could get a drink of water, for example. Or times during a halftime where someone needs to use a restroom facility. Just some of those very common-sense things, I think folks have to allow.”

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