“The Steelers, Eagles, Penn State, etc. & their opponents will evidently be required to wear masks while they are playing in PA from now on.”
Viral Tweet, Nov. 20, 2020

A few days after Pennsylvania announced a broad mask mandate to combat a surge in coronavirus cases, bloggers expressed shock that the far-reaching rules might apply to professional football players.

One viral tweet from a former NFL player said:

“Are people nationally aware that the Steelers, Eagles, Penn State, etc. and their opponents will evidently be required to wear masks while they are playing in Pennsylvania from now on?

We wondered whether Pennsylvania really does require players to mask up during games.

Under the new statewide order, players, coaches, and support staff for professional, college, and youth football teams must wear masks on the sideline. Players will not, however, be required to wear masks under their helmets at the line of scrimmage, because doing so could dangerously restrict their breathing.

None of that was clear when this tweet was sent last Friday.

Pennsylvania issued a mask mandate early in the pandemic, but on Nov. 17, Health Secretary Rachel Levine unveiled far-reaching new rules that require residents to wear masks when they’re with anyone who doesn’t live with them.

A memo written by the state with answers to frequently asked questions about the new order says this about sports:

“Does the Order apply to athletes and sports activities?

“Yes. Everyone who participates in sport activities including coaches, athletes (including cheerleaders), and spectators must wear a face covering, such as a mask, unless they fall under an exception in Section 3 of the Order.

“Indoors: Coaches, athletes (including cheerleaders), and spectators must wear face coverings, when indoors and where another person or persons who are not members of the individual’s household are present in the same space, irrespective of physical distance. This includes while actively engaged in workouts, competition, and on the sidelines, etc.

“Outdoors: Coaches, athletes (including cheerleaders), and spectators must wear face coverings if they cannot maintain sustained physical distance from persons outside of their household. This includes while actively engaged in workouts, competition, and on the sidelines, in the dugout, etc. If sustained six-foot distancing can be maintained, face coverings may be removed when outdoors.”

The order seems clear — athletes must wear masks even while engaged in competition.

But when a reporter from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review asked Steelers spokesperson Burt Lauten about the new rules on Nov. 18, he said players would not be masked up when they face the Ravens at home on Thanksgiving because the team was exempt from the state’s new mask order.

The Eagles and Penn State football teams also said they believed they were exempt.

The state initially told the Tribune-Review that it had granted no such exemptions — only to backtrack 24 hours later and confirm Friday that football players are indeed exempt because wearing a mask while playing a strenuous sport like football could impede players’ breathing.

To address the confusion it had caused, Pennsylvania recently added this section to its frequently asked questions memo:

“Can an athlete remove their mask during play if the mask causes a medical condition, including respiratory issues that impede breathing?

“Yes, the Order provides an exception in section 3 that provides that if wearing a face covering would either cause a medical condition, or exacerbate an existing one, including respiratory issues that impede breathing, a mental health condition or a disability. The order indicates all alternatives to wearing a face covering, including the use of a face shield, should be exhausted before an individual is excepted from this Order.

“Using football as an example, wearing a mask in addition to a mouth guard and a helmet would likely create a medical issue for the athlete whether the athlete is a professional or youth player even if a previous medical issue was not present. For example, the CDC says that “wearing a mask with these types of protective equipment is not safe if it makes it hard to breathe.” There are other sports where there are similar concerns that a mask would create a medical issue where one would otherwise not exist in an athlete. For example, it should also be obvious that wearing a mask while swimming presents an imminent health issue.

“According to Section 3, the athlete would be asked to work through alternatives that would reduce or eliminate the respiratory droplets that would impact others in proximity. If the sport, equipment, or exertion level does not allow for face covering to be worn safely then the athlete should not wear a face covering.

“There are no exemptions for specific sports, leagues, teams, or levels. We know that some people don’t like masks. We are asking everyone to please give this their best effort so we can continue these activities and others as we all unite to fight COVID-19.”

The Steelers and Eagles won’t be the only professional football teams wearing masks.

On Monday, the NFL announced leaguewide protocol that requires players who are not substituting or preparing to enter the field of play and are not wearing their helmets to wear a mask or a double-layered gaiter on the sideline. The rules will take effect on Thanksgiving Day.

Our sources

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “Steelers claim exemption from governor; players won’t wear masks on field,” Nov. 18, 2020

The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Eagles are exempt from Pennsylvania’s mask mandate for outdoor sports,” Nov. 20, 2020

Twitter, “@ralphDrussoAP Tweet,” Nov. 20, 2020

Twitter, “@TomPellisero Tweet,” Nov. 20, 2020

PolitiFact is a nonpartisan, fact-checking website operated by the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies.