Talking Points

The U.S. still has stricter mask policies for kids than Europe

The new CDC guidance on mask usage for Americans vaccinated against COVID-19 has swiftly shifted mask mandates. My state of Minnesota lifted its mandate, though our municipal mandate is still in place. Our favored Costco, however, is outside city limits and newly mandate-free for vaccinated customers, which means I can do my next grocery trip unmasked.

My twin toddlers soon cannot. They'll turn two this summer, which means that just as my husband and I can take our masks off in most indoor spaces, they'll have to put theirs on. Teaching them to wear a mask is proving a herculean task, so much so that I wonder if it's possible. Either way, I know it's ridiculous.

Other nations realize this. We have a flight planned for later this summer, so I've been researching airline rules. American carriers and airports all require masks for children two and up, per federal mandate. Airlines from other nations take a far more reasonable approach. At Emirates and Virgin Atlantic, the minimum age is six years old. For British Airways and Air France, it's 11 (and that higher cutoff isn't only for air travel).

This isn't indicative of a lax attitude toward the pandemic: France and the U.K. have had far stricter mitigation measures than we've seen anywhere in the United States. In the most recent French lockdown, for example, no one could travel more than 6 miles from their homes, a wildly draconian rule. Yet French parents don't have to wrestle their uncomprehending toddlers into masks to travel, and American parents do.

I have two ideas for a more reasonable (and, yes, obviously self-serving) approach given what we know of young children's mental and emotional development and COVID-19 itself. The first idea, which is my preference, is that children 11 and younger, who are currently too young to be vaccinated, would simply be exempt from all mask mandates, which is exactly what the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends. For this demographicpandemic risks are very low, especially with adult vaccination rates rising, and the benefits of normal life are high.

The second idea, if WHO guidance isn't acceptable, is to make kindergarten the cutoff. (The WHO actively advises against masks for kids 5 and under.) A child too young to go to school is too young to wear a mask. Their brains are just not ready yet, and this is as much biological reality as is COVID-19.