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RI dropping mask mandate for outdoor youth sports, summer camps

PROVIDENCE — After a growing chorus of complaints from parents, players and coaches, the State of Rhode Island on Tuesday said it is dropping its requirement that young people wear masks while playing all outdoor sports.

Children attending summer camps will also be able to ditch their masks outdoors. It also means schoolchildren can take their masks off at recess. The new rules take effect  Wednesday.


“We’re still making the distinction between vaccinated and unvaccinated, but it’s a recommendation and not a requirement,” Gov. Dan McKee said, referring to outdoor mask wearing in a meeting with reporters at the State House on Tuesday afternoon. “We wanted to align some of the things important to the community with the Health Department [guidelines].”


The decision on sports and camps falls under a larger umbrella of loosening restrictions. The Health Department on Tuesday put out a news release that said “vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals will no longer be required to wear masks outdoors in Rhode Island.”


But the department still does “strongly encourage” unvaccinated people to wear masks in crowded outdoor settings, or if they have sustained close contact with those who are not fully vaccinated.


The announcement reversed an earlier decision by the governor to extend the outdoor sports masking requirement to July 1 and followed a Hummel Report story last week showing that Massachusetts had decided to allow high-school athletes to go without masks outdoors last month, joining New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine. Vermont is the only New England state still requiring masks on young athletes outdoors.


At his last COVID briefing on May 20, McKee said the mask mandate, required if athletes cannot keep a distance of at least three feet, would continue until the end of the school year. A shuffling of seasons because of the pandemic means the Rhode Island Interscholastic League has extended spring sports by three weeks, with championship weekend at the end of this month.


While tennis and golf were not covered, lacrosse and youth soccer leagues were. Batters, umpires and catchers for baseball and softball needed to wear masks because of the three-foot rule.


Some coaches said the rules were unevenly enforced and took issue with young athletes two weekends ago having to play in 90-degree heat; they questioned whether the masks were doing more harm than good.


“I appreciate that the state, Governor McKee particularly, took a look at this whole thing,” said Mike Lunney, executive director for the Rhode Island Interscholastic League. “It’s been a collaboration, and they’re listening to our concerns.


“One thing we’ve realized over the whole year, across the country, every state is playing their own game,” Lunney added. “Some are more conservative [with their restrictions], some looser.”


Lunney said he will work quickly to get the word out to schools, coaches and referees about the new regulations, so there won’t be arguments on the field about them.


Lunney said he has been in discussions for months with the Health Department and the governor’s office. “The key thing we were expressing is: Is continuing to wear masks unsafe, from a COVID perspective? If we’re going to continue to have to wear masks, what’s the rationale behind it? If it’s something we need to do, have a good explanation why.”


The state’s decision follows evolving recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has eased masking requirements indoors and outdoors over the past several weeks. Over the weekend the governor and the team from the state’s Department of Health looked at Rhode Island’s policies before making a final decision.


The Health Department news release added: “There are no changes to indoor masking guidance, including throughout school settings. Fully vaccinated people can elect not to wear masks indoors where it is permitted. People who are yet to be fully vaccinated should continue wearing masks indoors.”


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