Masking For Sports- Making Indoor Sports Participation Safer

March 23, 2021

By: Dr. Rebecca Carl

During the COVID-19 pandemic, parents have been working hard to balance keeping kids safe with their children’s need for physical activity. Public health officials are stressing the three ‘W’s to protect against infection: wash your hands, watch your distance and wear a mask. When it comes to wearing a mask during sports, the message is a little less clear. Some practices and organized activities are moving indoors, as permitted by the state of Illinois guidelines

Parents of young athletes frequently ask me about how to make indoor sports participation safer and whether children should wear a mask when exercising. 

Transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is more common in an indoor environment. Exercising in closed spaces without good ventilation make contracting COVID-19 more likely. Maintaining distance between young athletes, not allowing shared equipment, limiting the number of children in an indoor space and mask wearing can help decrease the rate of transmission.

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) groups sports based on risk and specifies allowable types of practice for each sports. For example, gymnasts and cross-country runners are able to observe social distancing during practice and competitions. Therefore, IDPH considers these sports low risk and (as of 2/24/21) allows tournament and out-of-state competitions.  Wrestling, basketball, and football are high risk sports due to frequent close contact. The IDPH does not currently allow competition level play for these activities. 

Multiple studies have demonstrated that using face coverings decreases the rate of COVID-19 transmission.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children wear masks for team practices and competitions, as well as during downtime, for example while on the sideline or in the locker room. Children who participate in activities where social distancing is feasible (for example, golf) may not need to mask. The AAP cautions against using masks when they pose a health risk or during water sports. For example, if a mask slipping out of place over an athlete’s eyes during a gymnastics or competitive cheer routine could lead to serious injury. Fortunately, gymnastics and cheerleading are sports that typically allow for maintaining distance between athletes.

As parents, we want to see our children stay active and enjoy their sports. For young athletes, sensible precautions can decrease the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Dr. Rebecca Carl is an assistant professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and an attending physician at Ann Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. She completed fellowships in both non-operative pediatric orthopaedics and primary care sports medicine.