On Jan. 4, sports from the youth to the high school level were scheduled to resume under new regulations from the Minnesota Department of Health. According to these new rules, all athletes must wear face coverings while competing in their sports (with exceptions given to wrestling, swimming, cheerleading and gymnastics). I have concerns with these rules as I see them posing undue hazards to our young athletes.
I am a former multisport high school athlete and collegiate basketball player. I graduated from Princeton University with a degree in molecular biology and virology, and now serve as an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon. I fear that the requirement for athletes to wear face masks during competition is unsafe, unrealistic and likely ineffective.
The close personal contact of a wrestling match makes wrestling among the most likely of sports to spread COVID-19. Yet under the new rules, face coverings are not encouraged during wrestling competition due to obvious safety concerns. Does anyone else see the paradox?
The reality is that face coverings should not be considered safe for any athlete to wear during a competition.
Face coverings are unsafe because they are physically distracting, disruptive to an athlete's vision and depth perception, and may get caught or snagged leading to other unintended injuries to an athlete's eyes, ears, throat and nose.
If soccer does not allow earrings due to safety concerns, how is it that a face mask is viewed as less dangerous? How does an athlete who requires corrective glasses safely compete if, while wearing a mask, those glasses are constantly fogging up?
And if a hockey player's face covering becomes dislodged and blocks that player's vision, could that player then blindly crash into the boards causing injury, even paralysis? How exactly is the hockey player supposed to safely adjust the face covering while wearing hockey gloves and with a helmet/face mask in the way?
Face coverings will also prohibit the use of tethered mouth guards whose usefulness at preventing dental injuries and concussions are well documented. Use of an untethered mouth guard under a face covering would be considered a serious choking hazard, especially to athletes under age 12.
Furthermore, face coverings are unpractical and likely ineffective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 during sports competition. How will a mask fit once it becomes soaked in sweat during the second half of a basketball game? And will a sweat-soaked face mask even block COVID-19 particles and droplets? If players are constantly adjusting their face masks during the course of a game, is it really effective anyhow?
Haven't we all watched an NFL game on TV and noticed just how often the coaches remove and adjust their face masks? Touching and adjusting your face mask with such frequency effectively renders the mask contaminated and thereby useless.
Does the Department of Health have access to a trove of science and data that prove face masks are safe to wear during sports competition? Does the department have data that prove face masks will prevent the spread of COVID-19 during sports competition? And has the Department of Health considered science and data in any of the decisions they have made related to youth-level sports? The answer is "no." There simply is no science to support their decisions.
Rather than forming rules based in science, the Department of Health has chosen rules based on public perception. Perception of safety is important, but this is not what we ask of our public health experts. Our rightful expectation is that they will make decisions rooted in science and data. Their failure to do so will undoubtedly result in degradation of their already shaky credibility.
As an athlete, scientist and physician, I ask more from our public health experts; and so should all of us.
As there is no science to suggest that masks are effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 during sports competition; as masks may actually cause more harm in the form of unintended injuries; as masks will undoubtedly hinder competition; and as these rules are based more on perception than science, I strongly suggest that the Minnesota Department of Health reconsider their rules related to face coverings during sports competition.
If the department considers the risk of COVID-19 transmission concerning, then sports should simply be put back on hold until it is safe to play. But competitive sports simply should not be played while wearing face coverings.
Andrew F. Arthur, of Edina, is an orthopedic surgeon.