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Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin celebrates a win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. Based on new mandates released this week, Steelers players and their opponents, the Baltimore Ravens, will have to wear masks on the field during Pittsburgh’s next home game on Thanksgiving night. Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

In an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine on Tuesday released new, stricter mask requirements for state residents. Among the mandates was an order that people wear masks when “outdoors with others who are not members of a person’s household and unable to maintain sustained physical distance.”

These updated requirements mean players for Pennsylvania’s two NFL franchises (the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles), its college football teams and their opponents during games played in the state must wear some form of face covering while playing. Previously, most NFL players only were “strongly encouraged” by the league to wear masks while on the sideline and were not required to wear face coverings while playing, though they are required to follow any state rules that supersede the NFL’s protocols.

According to a FAQ about the new mask rules posted on the website of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, the new order applies to the state’s athletes and sports teams, even those athletes who are actively participating in games.

“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.,” the FAQ reads.

Levine’s order does list a number of exemptions, including a carve-out for when “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.”

On Wednesday, Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten said the exemption applied to the NFL team’s players during games.

“We have received guidance from the Governor’s Office that our players are exempt from wearing masks during an NFL game,” Lauten said. “All other personnel working at an NFL game are required to wear masks. In addition, we will continue to enforce our protocols that require all fans entering Heinz Field to wear a mask.”

But on Thursday, Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said the Steelers “were not granted an exemption.” Nevertheless, Lauten told the Tribune-Review on Thursday that the Steelers maintain they are covered under the list of exemptions. An email seeking clarity from Wolf’s office was not immediately returned Friday.

On Friday, the University of Pittsburgh announced both its football team and its opponent, Virginia Tech, will wear masks while playing Saturday’s game at Heinz Field.

“In alignment with the recent guidance from state officials regarding the current health climate, Pitt’s football team will be appropriately outfitted for Saturday’s game with face coverings to use on the field and sideline,” the school said in a statement. “This is being communicated to Virginia Tech’s sports medicine staff as well.”

The new Pennsylvania mandate does say plastic shields may be used as face coverings, as long as they cover “the nose and mouth,” extend “below the chin and to the ears” and leave “no exposed gap between the forehead and the shield’s headpiece.” Some NFL players have worn face shields that attach to their helmets, which satisfies the NFL requirement for mask use during practice, but others don’t like the shields because they create breathing issues.

A number of NFL players have tested positive for the coronavirus, though no games have been canceled. Based on contact tracing and genomic sequencing, league officials maintain they have seen no evidence of on-field transmission of the virus during games. Even so, NFL players must wear masks before and after games, and it’s recommended they do so on the sideline during games. The Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers and their opponents are required to wear face coverings on the sideline per local mandates in New York and California.

NFL players also are now required to wear masks anytime they are in team facilities, including on the practice field.

Michigan, which also has NFL and major college football teams, has a similar mask mandate for athletic teams. In September, however, the legal counsel for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said pro athletes in competition were exempt from the mandate because of their leagues’ “very rigorous protocols.” Whitmer’s office also said face shields were considered a sufficient face covering for college football players.

The Steelers’ next home game is Thanksgiving night against the Baltimore Ravens, and the Philadelphia Eagles play at home four nights later against the Seattle Seahawks. On Monday, the city of Philadelphia announced fans no longer would be allowed to attend Eagles games because of a rise in coronavirus cases; previously, 7,500 people had been allowed into Lincoln Financial Field.

The Steelers are allowing a little more than 5,000 fans to attend their home games.


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