The culture war over masks reaches summer camps

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WASHINGTON — Children attending camp this summer should keep their face masks on in most situations, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a Wednesday briefing of the White House coronavirus response team.

“If you have five 10-year[-olds] who are on a soccer field, all in front of the same soccer ball, we’re trying to make sure that there’s not a lot of heavy breathing around a singular soccer ball with five kids around it at the same time,” Walensky said, defending guidance that critics say is overly restrictive and does not reflect conclusive studies showing the coronavirus spreads far more effectively in confined spaces than outdoors and for the most part does not infect children.

With the coronavirus declining across the country, there is strong interest in summer camps. The question is just how much caution camps should exercise, considering that thousands of new infections are still being reported daily.

The new CDC guidance comes amid a larger debate about when it’s safe to remove masks. Last week, the CDC said that vaccinated people do not have to wear masks outdoors in most settings, though some have said that the new recommendations were still too restrictive and confusing.

“There is harm to children in terms of their emotional and social development from continued mask wearing,” Dr. Jayanta Bhattacharya of Stanford told Yahoo News. “I am at a loss to explain the CDC’s thinking, and I hope they reverse themselves.”

Walensky did appear to suggest that “small groups” of unvaccinated children engaged in “spread-out activities” outdoors would not have to wear masks, nor would vaccinated adolescents. Children between the ages of 12 and 15 will soon become eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, if the Food and Drug Administration grants approval for that age group, as it is expected to do shortly.

Group of young kids walking on trail in the woods with camp counselor at summer camp. (Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)
Group of young kids walk on a trail in the woods with a counselor at summer camp. (Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at the Seattle Children’s Hospital, told Yahoo News that the camp guidance was “depressing and “unnecessary.” He hoped that the CDC would issue a revision.

For now, the recommendations strongly advise that masks stay on. “All people in camp facilities should wear masks at all times,” it says. The suggested rules are especially strict for day campers who travel back and forth between camp and home and thus are likely come into contact with a far greater number of people than overnight campers. For them, the mask guidance applies to all situations except for eating and swimming, and for all campers over the age of 2, as well as counselors and other staff. Even children within the same cohort, or a designated group of campers who stay together, must continue to wear masks.

The CDC guidance also says that children at day camps within the same cohort must remain 3 feet apart at all times; that distance increases to 6 feet when groups are mixed, as well as when children are eating.

Children at overnight camps do not have to wear masks or physically distance within their bunks but are instructed against “mixing with other campers and staff in close contact circumstances.” If they do mix with other campers, they need to wear masks and socially distance, much like their day-camp counterparts.

Camps are also instructed to sanitize mats on which younger children nap, although the CDC recently said that last spring’s emphasis on surface cleaning was misguided, as the coronavirus spreads almost exclusively by air.

Walensky maintained on Wednesday that restrictions for camps are necessary. “What we really are trying to do is to ensure that all these kids can have a really good camp experience — and keep the camps open without any outbreaks,” she said.

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Kids toast marshmallows around the campfire. (Getty Images)

Those rules are “unnecessarily draconian,” Christakis argues. “My God, they've been waiting 15 months,” he said of children who have, in many parts of the country, endured Zoom school and other restrictions. “They've sacrificed so much.”

Children have accounted for 0.21 percent of U.S. coronavirus deaths, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“We know that the risk of outdoor infection is very low. We know risks of children becoming seriously ill or even ill at all is vanishingly small,” Columbia University pediatric immunologist Dr. Mark Gorelik told New York magazine.

Gorelik called the CDC guidelines “senseless.” Christakis said they were “bulls***.” And even Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top adviser to President Biden on the pandemic, said the guidelines were “a bit strict,” predicting they could be revised.

Public health officials are likely haunted by last summer’s outbreak at a Georgia summer camp that had few restrictions in place. Later in the summer, camps opened successfully in Maine. They did so by requiring masking and cohorting — in essence, many of the same guidelines the CDC now recommends for camps nationwide.

At the same time, scientists know that spread of the coronavirus outdoors is exceptionally rare. “Anyone who thinks kids should wear masks outside at summer camp is wrong,” Dr. Vinay Prasad, a cancer doctor at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote on Twitter. “They have no credible data to support that claim and it is yet another infringement on kids to sate adult anxieties.”

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Masked at tennis training. (Getty Images)

Some conservatives say that the Biden administration has practiced undue caution when it comes to lifting pandemic restrictions. That discretion, they say, has less to do with science than politics. Last week, Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson harshly criticized masking requirements for children, likening them to “child abuse.”

Keeping restrictions in place as an ever greater share of the American population becomes vaccinated may lead some unvaccinated people to conclude that getting inoculated isn’t worth the effort.

Christakis described sleepaway camps as “the ultimate missed opportunity” to provide children with a measure of normalcy. He pointed to the National Basketball Association’s successful sequestration of teams during the 2019-2020 season at Walt Disney World in Florida as a model.

“I'm so disappointed,” Christakis told Yahoo News. “Nothing we learned in the last year has been applied.”


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