Worried parents are left to navigate maskless mayhem

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The boys were begging to see their beloved St. Louis Cardinals play on their home field, which had finally reopened to fans, so Stephanie Malia Krauss and Evan Krauss carefully considered what it would mean to bring their young sons to a baseball game: They’d be surrounded by people, but the seating was socially distant, and masks were required. They were worried about their 10-year-old son’s asthma – a risk factor if he contracted covid-19 – but they were also thinking about how happy he’d be at the game, after so many homebound months. They decided to wait until a few weeks had passed with no sign of a ballpark-related outbreak before they finally bought tickets for a Sunday afternoon in late May.

Then, just over a week before the game, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated public health guidelines, stating that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks outside or inside, no matter the crowd size.

“And then we got an email that the stadium was expanding capacity, and saying that if you’re vaccinated, now you don’t have to wear a mask – but there’s no indication that they’ll actually check vaccination cards,” says Stephanie Krauss, a 35-year-old educator and social worker. “So if someone’s not wearing a mask, we’re left to not know – are they vaccinated, or not? Are they exposing others?”

Krauss thought they’d settled the question – is a baseball game safe for my kids? – but now she wasn’t sure anymore.

“In terms of my kids, both for their physical and mental well-being, we’ve invested a lot of emotional stock in these highly calculated risks to take, based on available guidance, available rules and laws,” she says. “But because everything changes so rapidly, at some point you just kind of end up stuck, and you don’t know what to do.”

When the CDC abruptly changed its guidance on mask-wearing last month, many parents voiced frustration about the lack of clarity for families – and specifically, how vaccinated parents with unvaccinated children were supposed to interpret the new rules. Since then, there have been a slew of follow-up stories with epidemiologists and experts offering their own thoughts about what seems reasonable and safe.

But the broad takeaway still falls into a dreaded gray area: It’s mostly up to you, parents, depending on your individual circumstances, your particular risk thresholds, your specific kids. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; what is right for one family won’t be right for another. Which might feel empowering, or maybe just exhausting. After 15 months of analyzing and agonizing over once-simple choices, there are only new, more nuanced scenarios to consider:

Is a summer camp safe if most – but not all – activities are held outside, and the older campers might be vaccinated, but the younger ones are not?

Should a family travel by plane if their baby is too young to be masked and the flight is full?

If masks are no longer required in many public places, what does that mean for kids who are especially vulnerable to covid-19?

That was Scott Kaminski’s first worry when he saw the updated guidance: His 3-year-old son, Cameron, has Down syndrome, which puts the toddler at higher risk of serious complications if he caught the virus. Kaminski, 45, who lives in North Carolina with his wife, Jennifer, and their two boys, had watched as some people in his community flouted safety precautions throughout the pandemic, strolling through the grocery store with masks tucked defiantly below their chins.

“Our first reaction was really, unfortunately, to think about the mistrust we have for some people out there,” he says. “I think the new guidelines just gave that group of people – the ones who already weren’t taking this seriously – it gives them a bit of a pass. And for our family, that makes us even a little more concerned about who we’re interacting with, and how those interactions take place.”

After getting vaccinated, Laura Hackett, a mom of 3-year-old and 10-month-old daughters in California, says she looked forward to reclaiming some sense of normalcy; she and her husband recently brought their girls on an errand to the hardware store, she says, a small outing that felt like a big milestone. But she isn’t sure they’d do that again, in the absence of mask mandates.

“We will continue to have to put thought into what we do as a family, because it feels like it’s just decided that life can go back to normal, regardless of covid,” she says. “Life won’t be as carefree as we expected it would be by this summer, and the weighing of ‘doing this versus that’ will continue to take up brain space.”

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So far, the CDC has not followed up with more specific recommendations for parents of unvaccinated kids, leaving many to turn to other trusted sources for guidance. Daniel Summers, a pediatrician who practices in Massachusetts, has spent a lot of time lately helping families talk through their questions and hesitations.

“I’m having these conversations every single day, numerous times a day,” Summers says. “I start with parents by figuring out where they are, and I begin by telling any parent that I don’t want them to feel like I’m trying to move them off their space of comfort. So I’m primarily trying to empower them to make their own calculations, and feel confident in those decisions – that I trust them to do this for any given situation, because these decisions are on a case-by-case, event-by-event, activity-by-activity basis. I want them to feel like they can assess the risk that’s going to be present, they can know who is going to be there and decide if the risk that they are going to be accepting is worth the benefit that they are going to enjoy.”

For most children, experts agree that the risk associated with covid infection is low – but not nonexistent. And for families with higher-risk children, negotiating their own boundaries can feel especially tiring and isolating.

“You feel like the world around you doesn’t understand the perspective, and it is hard to be in the minority,” says Katie Stout, 39, a physical therapist in Maryland. Her two young sons have health conditions that place them at higher risk for covid: her 8-year-old has a seizure disorder and her 3-year-old was born with a congenital heart defect. Stout worries that keeping them safe just got harder, even as everyone else seems to be rejoicing about their new freedoms. “Now there is the extra layer of no one having masks on, and the cognitive fatigue of constantly having to make these extra levels of decisions just for normal activities.”

And once those decisions have been made, they must be explained to curious or confused children. Stout has spent the past year reiterating to her 8-year-old that people wear masks to protect others, that the cloth-covered faces surrounding them were helping to keep him and his little brother safe.

“He’s lived through his little brother in the ICU. His cousin was a premature baby, and passed away. He’s lived through really bad outcomes for little kids,” Stout says. “So to now see adults not wearing masks when he’d looked up to adults to model that protective behavior – it’s just another challenging conversation to have in the middle of all this.”

Devan Sandiford, a patent examiner and freelance writer in Brooklyn, has also spent a lot of time trying to help his 6- and 9-year-old boys feel safe: Sandiford is Black, and his wife is Indonesian, and their biracial sons have been attuned not only to the ravages of covid-19, he says, but also to the anti-Asian racism it unleashed. For months, he says, neither of his boys wanted to spend much time outside their apartment. More recently, Sandiford and his wife have grappled with whether their children should return to a hybrid schedule at their public charter school.

To Sandiford, the latest reversal of mask mandates felt jarring: “It felt like there was just this free-fall,” he says. “I definitely feel fatigued. It does feel like quite a bit to take in and to process. Kids thrive off some level of consistency. Not just kids, all of us – we thrive off a sense of understanding what’s happening.”

But there is nothing certain or consistent about our current circumstances, so – for now, Sandiford says, he and his wife will keep wearing their masks in public, in solidarity with their boys.

And for now, Hackett says, their family will avoid eating indoors at restaurants, but she thinks she’d feel safe taking a flight with her 10-month-old daughter, because passengers are still required to wear a mask.

In the end, Krauss and her husband chose to take their sons to the baseball game. The stadium was packed, she says, and it was hot outside, and the family wound up moving to seats far enough from others that it felt OK for the boys to take their masks and face shields off. Anytime a stranger came too close, Krauss says, the face shields went back on.

“Even so, this morning we both had a post-outing emotional hangover,” she says, the day after their outing, “waking up and wondering if it was worth it and if we had taken unnecessary risks with the boys.”

Sometime in the coming months, the country’s youngest will finally have their turn to be vaccinated. Until then, the deliberations are ongoing over which risks feel worth taking.

But Summers is heartened to be having these discussions with parents, he says: “This is the flip side of the conversations I was having this time last year, when I was really putting emphasis on the need to minimize risk to the greatest degree possible,” he says. “Now it’s been a lot of conversations about people returning to the lives that they’ve had to put on hold.”

There is some trepidation, he says, and the questions keep coming – about camps, about neighborhood playgrounds and vacation plans, the many small vestiges of the life we had before. But when he talks to his patients and their families, he says what he senses most is hope, an eagerness to finally feel safe reclaiming what’s been lost.

“The small things,” Summers says, “add up to a meaningful quality of life.”

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