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Wearing masks while playing youth sports, controversial from the moment it became required in January, officially ended Thursday for athletes competing or practicing outside in Minnesota.

The underlying reason that brought it about hasn't gone anywhere, though.

"It doesn't feel like we should be celebrating, because my JV game got canceled because of a positive case on the other team,'' Prior Lake boys' lacrosse coach Casey Mithun said. "I don't know how that gets better if now we're not wearing masks."

Masks still must be worn during breaks in competition or practice, such as while on the bench or sideline or in the dugout, according to new guidance released Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Health. Game officials such as referees and umpires also must wear masks, as do spectators, according to information from the high school league meeting. Indoor activities also continue to require mask-wearing of all participants.

Sara Hatleli, Rosemount girls' track and field coach, said: "Science has proved the chances of spreading COVID-19 outside are slim. Our kids are thrilled. Competing in masks makes it hard to breathe, so it's nice the they don't have to worry about that and can just focus on doing their best. There is a sense of normalcy."

Minnetonka baseball coach Paul Twenge, who also is the school's activities coordinator, said, "The players will now feel like they are playing baseball again. The game will be more as to what they have been playing in the past.''

The change "allows for outdoor competition under similar guidance as was in place this past fall,'' said Erich Martens, executive director of the Minnesota State High School League.

Prior Lake lacrosse coach Casey Mithun, far right.
Prior Lake lacrosse coach Casey Mithun, far right.

Cheryl A. Myers

The health department also said it was urging athletes, coaches, referees, volunteers and other participants to get tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis. That follows increased community spread of the virus in more transmissible strains, with much of the COVID spread in recent weeks being tied to younger people, particularly those in middle and high school, the department said.

Asked about high school league support of the testing push for its 500 member schools, Martens said, "The league is always interested in trying to provide safe experiences for our participants, officials and coaches connected to them. And certainly testing, and should we be able to get 16- to 18-year-olds vaccinated, those things can add to the safety of the experience our kids get within our activities."

Wearing masks in games and practice became required in early January, when youth and high school sports resumed after a six-week-long state-ordered pause was lifted. The requirement was part of state efforts to curb transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

As games resumed, it was commonplace to see some basketball and hockey players with masks below their nose, or resting on or under their chin. Whether it was intentional or the result of physical play, game officials, while not seeing themselves as the mask police, had the authority to ask them to wear the mask properly.

With spring sports moving outdoors, the high school league pushed for the mask change that the health department announced Thursday.

Now, coaches say, they just want to get through the season without complications.

"I understand the desire to not wear masks, especially as it gets hotter,'' Mithun said. "But I want to play more than anything.''

High school sports editor Paul Klauda contributed to this report.