by Mark Van Streefkerk
Fall sports have returned, but the rules are a little different this time around. For King County schools, sports like football and basketball were canceled for 2020, although a short football season took place in March of this year. Now student athletes are back for the fall season, with mask or testing requirements in some cases. For spectators, a new mandate from Public Health — Seattle & King County (PHSKC) means masking up in the bleachers while you cheer on your favorite teams.
At this stage in the pandemic, health officials know more about COVID-19 transmission, and over 70% of eligible King County residents have been vaccinated. However, the number of confirmed cases has climbed since July, putting a strain on hospitals. Even outdoor gatherings that were once considered lower-risk activities have been sites for transmission, such as the 108 cases linked to the Northwest Washington Fair.
In light of the increase in confirmed cases, PHSKC issued a new mask mandate that requires all people ages 5 and older to wear face coverings at outdoor gatherings of 500 or more, regardless of vaccination status. It’s also strongly recommended that all people wear face coverings at outdoor settings where they can’t maintain a social distance of 6 feet from non-household members.
In August, the Washington Department of Health (DOH) issued new guidelines to prevent COVID-19 transmission for the 2021–2022 school year, including guidelines for student athletes. Masks are required for everyone in weight rooms. Vaccinated student athletes aren’t required to wear a face mask for indoor, high-contact sports such as basketball (unvaccinated athletes must be tested before participating), and there’s no mask requirements for outdoor sports like football. You can read the DOH’s complete guidelines here (mask requirements for sports start on page 14).
Mask requirements might vary from one youth sports organization to another. For example, at the end of August, the Seattle Youth Soccer Association’s board of commissioners voted to approve that all players and coaches in unvaccinated age groups be required to wear face masks at all times during games and practices.
Dr. Jonathan Drezner, director of the UW Medicine Center for Sports Cardiology, said the benefits of youth sports, when done safely, are vital for student athletes. “Sports overall have so many benefits for the overall well-being and mental health of our youngsters that they have to get back to it,” he said. “They can be on the field, they can compete, and this isn’t necessarily increasing transmission of the virus.”
Drezner urged caution in other activities adjacent to sports events, like carpools, team huddles, and locker room scenarios. Activities are higher-risk when involving unmasked people in close quarters without a lot of airflow.
Coaches will be important guides in keeping young athletes safe. “You have a responsibility for your student athletes to be compliant with our prevention strategies,” Drezner said. “We’re still in the heart of a pandemic — the delta [variant] is really prevalent right now and the coaches have a responsibility … You need to be a role model for them.”
Enjoy and support our local sports teams this fall, but remember to mask up in the stands and on the bleachers, and if you haven’t already — get vaccinated!
Check out the PHSKC’s “Getting Vaccinated in King County” website to find a vaccination site near you.
📸 Featured Image: Dr. Jonathan Drezner, director of the UW Medicine Center for Sports Cardiology, urges coaches to make sure all student-athletes meet COVID-19 guidelines. Photo courtesy of UW Medicine.
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