Seeking to clarify what he described as a confusing order from Maryland’s governor, the head of the Carroll County Health Department suggested the Board of County Commissioners require masks in county recreational league sports under most circumstances, but the board declined to support that proposal.
Ed Singer, county health officer, proposed the commissioners tighten rules for face coverings in all competitions and practices run by the rec leagues.
“What I’d like to see us do is just give the programs guidance that they’ve got to wear masks when they can’t socially distance unless a medical provider is saying that they can’t wear a mask safely or if we’re in extreme heat conditions,” Singer said at the commissioners meeting Thursday.
On Aug. 6, the county departments of health and recreation and parks prohibited competition in tackle football, wrestling and basketball in youth rec sports leagues due to concerns about a high risk of spreading COVID-19. Practice in these sports is still permitted, and this does not affect travel teams that aren’t affiliated with local rec councils.
Singer said Thursday that Gov. Larry Hogan’s order requires masks to be worn for most sports, when 6 feet of social distancing can’t be maintained, but there’s a caveat that Singer said is causing confusion — masks don’t need to be worn if it would be unsafe to do so.
The Aug. 3 mask order states that face coverings must be worn by people older than 5 years old when they are outside and unable to keep 6 feet from people who are not members of their household. There are a number of exceptions, including, “if, due to a bona fide disability or medical condition, it would be unsafe for the person to do so.”
But, Singer asked, what does it mean to wear a mask when it can be done so safely? He reached out to the Maryland Department of Health, and an official there thought the guidance was very clear, Singer said. When he contacted the governor’s office, Singer was told the order does not allow people to forgo masks in sports simply because they don’t want to wear them.
Still, Singer feels some Carroll County residents are confused about masks in sports. He said it’s like he is “refereeing” between two groups, both consisting of parents and coaches — those who want more children to wear masks and those who don’t.
“We’ve got to set some right and left limits for them,” Singer said. “I have a hard time finding it very clear when it says, ‘done safely,’ and that’s the question that everybody keeps asking is what does that mean?”
While the commissioners said they appreciated the tough spot Singer is in, they did not agree with his proposal and suggested they instead stay the course. They did not take a formal vote, but made it clear they would not support Singer’s idea.
Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, did not believe the county should be asking more of parents by creating a policy that would lead to families taking trips to the doctor to get approval for their children not to wear masks.
Earlier in the meeting, Singer shared data relating to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, that appeared to show Carroll County heading in a positive direction. Last week, the county had 53 new cases among members of the community outside of facilities like nursing homes. Singer said he would feel more comfortable if that number decreased to 35 cases per week, which translates to three cases per 100,000 people.
Referring to this information, Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, said the county needs to continue on its current path. “Slow and steady, stay the course, and we’ll get through this, I think, in a short period of time,” he said.
Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, read a letter from a member of the Westminster Wildcats football team about why he loves his sport. Bouchat said the commissioners’ office received 72 “heart-wrenching” hand-written letters from athletes advocating for sports to open back up.
He asked if Singer could set a target for the number of cases the county needs to reach in order to return sports to normal, to give families something to hope for. Commissioners Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, and Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, shot down that idea, suggesting the number is fluid.
Frazier suggested that tackle football could maybe resume when the number of cases reaches a certain point, but did not want to open it up and then have an influx of new cases.
Although Wantz did not want to add another “layer” to rec sports requirements, he acknowledged Singer’s position.
“There are those out there that seem to be very angry and seem to want to say that it’s our fault, and it’s not,” Wantz said. “Most of the time it’s up to the fact that you’re having a difficult time, Ed, with the interpretation of what exactly this thing says. I get that challenge, too.”
Singer had expressed hope last week that there would be additional guidance coming from the state on youth rec sports, but now he doesn’t see that coming.
“Well, I think from what I’ve heard from you guys today, is you don’t feel like when sports are in active competition that masks can necessarily be worn safely,” he said.
Singer suggested that Wantz make the board’s position clear to the governor’s office. Singer indicated there continues to be pressure from the state on the county health department to enforce mask guidelines in youth rec sports.
“We need to let the folks at the state level know that we don’t have intention of enforcing it that way, so you can take some of the heat off us as a health department while they’re trying to push us to get the youth sports programs to all be wearing masks,” Singer said.
He thanked the commissioners for their consideration, saying he felt a conversation needed to be had. Singer encouraged those who can safely wear masks in competition or practice to do so.
At the close of the virtual meeting, five people called in to advocate on behalf of youth rec sports. One woman questioned how flag football is any safer than the tackle format. Another person said she wants sports to open back up, but in a safe manner because children are scared, too. One caller argued the rate of transmission among children is lower compared to other age groups and said only one child in the state has died from COVID-19.
The Maryland Department of Health website, as of Friday, indicated there was one death in the 10-19 age group and none younger than 10. There were 7,050 cases in the 10-19 group and 3,697 cases in the 0-9 group. The 10-19 group has the fourth-lowest number of cases among age groups in the state, while the 0-9 group has the lowest number of cases.