Washington State Department of Health says masks not required for fall high school sports: ‘This is a step in the right direction’

High school athletes statewide will not be required to wear masks during competition across all fall sports, according to the Washington State Department of Health’s updated health guidelines released Wednesday.

Participants in all outdoor sports, as well as moderate and low-contact indoor sports won’t be required to wear masks during play. Masks are required in some team settings outside the field of play, like on team buses and in weight rooms. Social distancing is also recommended when possible.

“The bad news is we’ve got a surge and we’ve still got people getting sick,” WIAA executive director Mick Hoffman said. “(But) it’s not as stringent a response as what we’ve experienced in the past … this is the step in the right direction as far as a reasonable response to what we’re seeing with the pandemic.”

The outlook on the virus’ impact on the fall high school sports seasons turned optimistic early in the summer as the percentage of the vaccinated population continued to increase, and case counts and deaths plummeted (there were no new cases statewide on July 5, according to The New York Times).

But a stark rise in cases and hospitalizations due to the Delta variant across Washington, which has produced a staggering increase in breakthrough cases, signaled the state DOH’s updated K-12 recommendations might be more stringent than initially believed. 

For basketball, water polo and cheer — the three WIAA-sanctioned high school sports the department of health lists as “high contact” — players who verify they are vaccinated may play without a mask, while the unvaccinated must undergo regular testing. Students must verify their vaccination status with their respective schools.

Unvaccinated athletes playing high-contact indoor sports may be exempt from wearing masks if they undergo twice weekly screening testing.

Masks are required for spectators at indoor events (volleyball is the only fall indoor sport), which comes at a time when health officials statewide are urging people to wear masks indoors.

The department of health will not require masks be worn by spectators at outdoor events, though local decision makers  can still do so.

“It’s a hell of a lot better than what we had last fall,” Hoffman said. “But we got a long ways to go. We know people don’t want to wear masks, people don’t want to test, people don’t want to get vaccinated. There’s COVID fatigue, we’re all tired of it. But if we’re comparing last fall to this fall – much better.”

As of Thursday,  53.3 percent of Washington state’s population is fully vaccinated, according to the state DOH, including 70.7 percent of Washingtonians ages 12 and older.

Last school year, high school sports were sidelined amid the coronavirus pandemic until the spring, when they returned in shortened seasons with a variety of restrictions.

Now, state playoffs are back, full seasons return and sports return to their assigned season. (Here is the WIAA’s complete state championship calendar for 2021-22.)

More resources

DOH COVID-19 dashboard

DOH updated sports and fitness COVID-19 guidance

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