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Michigan’s new coronavirus order: masks for little kids at camp, child care

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday ordered staffers and most children at camps and child care centers in much of Michigan to wear face masks beginning Monday. 

The announcement came shortly after public health officials linked a central Michigan summer camp to an outbreak of more than 50 cases of coronavirus in campers and staff  — and shortly before many schools prepare to return to in-person instruction. 

“Child-care workers have been on the front lines of this crisis and have worked tirelessly to provide a safe place for our children and families during this time,” Whitmer said in a statement. “I am committed to doing everything in my power to protect people of all ages from COVID-19. By masking up, we can all be a part of the solution.”

Face masks won’t be required in child care centers in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, regions that are in Phase 5 of reopening, as long as they remain at that stage.

The order requires masks be worn by staff and: 

  • Children over the age of 2 when on a bus or other transportation. 
  • Those over 4 in indoor hallways and in common areas. 
  • Children over 12 in classrooms, houses, cabins or elsewhere indoors. 

Children are exempt from wearing a mask if they’re under 2, can’t tolerate them or remove them without help and while eating, sleeping, swimming or exercising (singing and cheering, however, aren’t exempt). 

Masks also aren’t required if children are outside and able to socially distance by six feet.

Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and other states have implemented similar rules in recent weeks, prompting debate about whether young children will follow them or tolerate masks for long periods.

Elisabeth Tobia, executive director of Educational Child Care Center in Lansing, said she doesn’t anticipate the requirement will be a big change, as many parents have already taught their children how to wear masks in public.

 “I can’t say I think it’s a bad idea,” she said.

Still, Tobia said it may be challenging to get young children to wear masks for such a long period and may cause them to touch their faces more as they fuss with the face covering. 

“There’s no such thing as social distancing under the age of 5,” Tobia said

She added there are concerns about young children learning how to speak without seeing adults’ mouths, though she’s looking into purchasing clear-paneled masks that can help avoid that. 

Daryl Sieplinga, CEO of the Michigan YMCA, said there are only three YMCA overnight camps that opened for the summer, and they should be wrapping up their season within the next week or two. However, day camps and childcare centers are likely to continue to operate throughout the fall. 

Sieplinga said the order, Whitmer’s 160th since the pandemic started in mid-March, was a small surprise, but many of the camps and child care centers already are following its protocols.  

He acknowledged some parents won’t be eager to comply but the YMCA will focus on communicating with families ahead of time. 

“Our Ys are really supportive of whatever we can do to help assure that we think first of the health of the kids and families in the state,” he said. “None of this is easy or comfortable but all of it is important.”

Tom Rosenberg, president of the American Camp Association, said rules have varied for camps and childcare centers throughout the country, but most have taken extraordinary measures to protect children from exposure, including quarantining children beforehand and bunking them in “households” to prevent spread. 

“Kids are learning to adapt” and mask requirements are no different, he said. Most camps, however, work with children who are at least school-aged.

Both Sieplinga and Rosenberg said mask requirements for kids at camp can be a good training ground for those who may be returning to school in the fall by helping them get comfortable with coronavirus-related precautions.

“It's almost like an ethos: If we do this together and we can have camp,” he said. The same goes for in-person schooling, where the psychological and social benefits for children has been a major part of discussions over school reopening.

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