a blond boy wearing a facemask
(Photo/iconscout.com-Janko Ferlic CC0)

‘Honor system’ on masks puts my young kids at peril

When it comes to medical choices about my kids, I couldn’t be more conventional.

Mine got all their childhood vaccines right on schedule; the more, the better.

I said yes to both breastfeeding and formula-feeding; science says they’re both nutritious options for infants.

I fed my kids peanut butter as babies because my pediatrician said there was no reason to worry.

I followed the rules to the letter about putting babies to sleep on their backs, but I didn’t buy any high-tech SIDS prevention devices because the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t advise them.

During our Covid year, I’ve trusted conventional, mainstream sources to help me make decisions for my family, even as that advice has naturally shifted as we learn more about the disease.

That meant we stayed away from playgrounds for months, then joyfully returned to them when it became clear that they were safe.

It meant that I supported the school closures in the spring of 2020, but when the AAP said kids could and should return to school safely, I felt confident enrolling my children for in-person class for the fall. They have become pros at wearing masks, grabbing them before they leave the house, keeping them on all day at school, and generally being much more consistent and uncomplaining than most adults.

So when the CDC recently announced that it was safe for vaccinated people to stop wearing masks in most settings, I was caught off guard. Perhaps without intending to, they have put parents in a difficult and precarious position.

To be clear: I believe the CDC when it says that, in a given Walmart, for instance, it’s safe for fully vaccinated people to not wear masks while everyone else keeps them on. What I don’t believe is that there is much overlap between the populations of adults who refuse to get the vaccine vs. those who will conscientiously continue to wear masks on the honor system for public safety.

And that leaves families with children under 12 in a situation where they must tighten their Covid precautions at a time when everyone else is loosening theirs.

Because until the vaccine has been approved for young children, I can’t take my 5-year-old and 8-year-old into a grocery store or ice cream shop where there will likely be unvaccinated and unmasked people walking around. (Walmart, one of their favorite destinations, has dropped its universal mask requirement and now asks unvaccinated customers to wear a mask on the honor system.)

I’ve heard people argue that we shouldn’t worry too much about this, that kids are at such low risk for serious complications from Covid that the new policy will not put them in danger.

And maybe I would assess the situation differently if I didn’t know that the vaccine would be available to children within a matter of months. If the status quo were going to persist for years into the future, I might decide that we need to accept the ongoing risk and chance a few trips into the grocery store.

But given the reality that we’re so close to shots for kids, I can’t in good faith risk my children contracting Covid after being careful for so long. We don’t know the long-term effects of Covid, nor fully understand how the new variants affect children.

What I wish the CDC had done was acknowledge that, yes, fully vaccinated people are safe to take off their masks in many more situations, and they should feel free to do so in any outdoor setting. And that, as vaccination rates rise and case levels go down, we could move away from the indoor mask mandate.

As it stands, we can no longer rely on peer pressure in most places to keep masks on the faces of those who should wear them.

And maybe I don’t need to be as militant about my family’s rules if Covid rates get low enough. But how low is safe enough? I wish the CDC would tell me.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.