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Enforcement play: Everyone’s wearing masks, but accountability varies by state

  • Austin DeFelice, of Hartford, catches his breath under his mask during a break in play with Fair Haven at the Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. Hartford won 3-0. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Windsor field hockey team finishes a warm-up lap around the athletic fields at the start of practice in Windsor, Vt., on Sept. 21, 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, players are required to wear masks while on the field and games will be played in four quarters instead of two halves. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Referees Steve Rose, left, and Steve Marro, right, talk before the Hartford, Woodstock football game in White River Junction, Vt., Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. “I’m sort of liking it, but it’s not like regular football,” said Marro. “I’m just glad to be out here letting the kids play,” said Rose. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Referee Geoff Illingworth uses a mouth-blown whistle under his mask during the game between Hartford and Woodstock in White River Junction, Vt., Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Some officials are using electronic whistles to avoid the difficulty of blowing with a mask on, and spreading respiratory droplets. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Referee David Byrne holds his electronic whistle during the coin toss before Hartford’s game with Woodstock in White River Junction, Vt., Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Two of the four referees at the game used the devices. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/17/2020 9:33:06 PM
Modified: 10/17/2020 9:33:02 PM

Athletic directors, coaches, officials and athletes knew going into this fall sports season that they were entering into the unknown.

The last time the world was in a pandemic of this magnitude was the Spanish flu outbreak, which lasted from 1918-20. And nobody knew if this season was going to be completed — knock on wood, it looks like it’s heading that way — or what challenges would ensue.

But with playoffs in some sports starting as soon next week and the weather growing colder, it has become clear what the biggest complication this season is: mask requirements.

In the state of Vermont, coaches and players are required to don a face covering whenever in competition or practice, with cross country runners getting the only exception. Meanwhile, across the Connecticut River, coaches and players in New Hampshire have to wear masks only when on the sidelines, excluding volleyball because it’s played indoors.

And that doesn’t even include the policing that has to be done on the few fans in attendance.

“It’s an incredibly tiring battle,” Hartford High athletic director Jeff Moreno said earlier this week. “The bigger picture is we’re doing our part in keeping the virus at bay in our community, so our children can have some sense of normalcy. And if we learned anything last spring, and I hope we learned something, it’s that these are going to be the first things taken away if we don’t mind the rules.”

When the Hurricanes hosted Fair Haven for an Oct. 2 boys soccer match, Moreno interrupted play in the 22nd minute and walked out to the center circle to remind both teams they must have their masks on at all times.

It was the most public enforcement of the rules he’s had to make, but certainly not the most heated. Trying to balance the faction of people who believe sports shouldn’t be played with another that thinks athletics shouldn’t be limited has been a challenge everyday, too.

Moreno doesn’t have a fix-all solution, either. He understands the state of Vermont has to make these broad-stroke decisions to suit all schools, but that doesn’t make it any easier. And the Vermont Principals Association has made it clear it won’t get involved with masks, sticking to sports only.

In his fourth year as athletic director at his alma mater, Moreno has found this his biggest challenge, yet it has more to do with public health than sports. He’s had to constantly remind coaches to talk to their players about wearing face coverings, along with reaching out to opposing schools that don’t follow the guidelines.

“It’s extremely fatiguing,” he admitted.

Up the road at Thetford Academy, Blendon Salls is in a similar position. Aspects of monitoring mask-wearing have been easier; he thinks it’s because he doesn’t have a football team to consider.

But there have been new issues to tackle.

Trying to figure out transportation is a daily task. The Panthers are in a hybrid setup, meaning some students are actually on campus only a handful of days a week. Coordinating who is or isn’t taking the bus, passing the information along to coaches and then making sure everybody is masked and distanced while on the road are just some of his worries.

Salls has taken on the chore of attendance at sporting events, too, since players are limited to two spectators per athlete on each team. One day, Mom and Dad might want to be at a game; the next, Grandma and Grandpa. Trying to get it right for home games is hard enough; he also has to send a list to away games.

So far, it’s all worked. That doesn’t mean he’s in the clear.

“People are willing to do anything to watch their kid play. They’ll do anything,” Salls said.

The entire experience has been extremely fluid for Megan Sobel at Hanover High. Just this week, athletic directors across the Granite State sat in on a conference call with Gov. Chris Sununu’s task force to discuss a variety of issues, including masks.

The Marauders also participate in a wide range of sports, which has kept her busy. Because the volleyball team plays all its games indoors, masks are required. And the football team is full-contact, as opposed to Vermont where it’s a seven-on-seven touch game this fall. Masks on the gridiron have brought concern, she said, because players in the state have mentioned being choked when being tackled because opponents have grabbed neck gaiters.

Sobel’s coaches have reported back that there have been daily challenges: Players aren’t wearing masks when on the field, so they aren’t putting them on when coming off or socially distancing.

“The biggest issues we’ve had has been the issues of after practice: the water breaks, the sort of social part of the sport,” she said. “You’re supposed to be 6 feet away, but you go off to get water and go talk to your teammates because that’s what you do. That’s been the biggest challenge — just the reminders.”

Added Hanover boys soccer coach Rob Grabill: “We always need to remind each other; we’re always on each other’s case. For me, personally, I always, always, always wear a mask when I’m outside the house. I’m at risk.”

Grabill’s counterpart at Lebanon, Rob Johnstone, said the Raiders played a game early in the season that was livestreamed so more fans could watch. But the video feed also showed Lebanon players not wearing masks on the sideline, which resulted in athletic director Mike Stone going around to have a conversation with teams about the need to follow the rules.

“It’s probably a good thing that the mask is on,” chuckled Johnstone, who also noted teams in New Hampshire have had to wear masks when playing certain schools. “It’s like a five-second delay when calling a game on the radio. When I’m the only one who has heard it (his comment), then I’m like, ‘Whoa, maybe I should rethink that.’ ”

All coaches and athletic directors have had to referee students on wearing masks, but officials have had to do it in live time on the field and court.

Bryan Fortier has made the switch from full-contact football to the adjusted seven-man game in Vermont. Along with adjusting to the rules and pace of play, he’s also been keeping track of players’ mask behavior.

He’s tried to keep it safe on the field, too. Whenever masks are pulled down on the field, he blows his whistle under his gaiter mask and calls the player off of the field for a play, similar to when a helmet pops off in contact football.

Officials on both sides of the state border have approached enforcement differently. Some have scolded players and coaches for not wearing masks this season when they run past benches. Others focus solely on the game, sticking to the rules they’ve been trained to execute.

Athletes understand the necessity of strapping on a face covering. They have to wear them whenever in school, sometimes for eight hours a day before heading outside for practice.

Running around with one on usually results in a sweaty, gross piece of cloth. Select sports in Vermont have taken to mask breaks in games to give kids a chance to grab water and take socially distanced breaths.

“In the beginning, it was definitely tough,” Windsor girls soccer forward Elliot Rupp said. “Now I’ve gotten used to it. We just have to be reminded to keep them up sometimes. We’ve definitely adjusted. It’s definitely annoying sometimes, but we’ve accepted it and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Pete Nakos can be reached at pnakos@vnews.com.




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