State rescinds child mask mandate

Alonah Montgomery sits on the floor socially distanced from other children while going over a lesson as Laiyah Singletery reads at Pippen Palace Childcare Academy on Detroit’s west side on Aug. 13, 2020. New York rescinded a rule late Monday that required young children ages 2-5 to wear face masks at day care and other child care facilities, including summer camp. Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press

ALBANY — State officials rescinded a new mask mandate for toddlers and children ineligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19 late Monday after day care providers and camp leaders joined a chorus of lawmakers demanding Gov. Andrew Cuomo repeal the federal recommendation.

The state Office of Children Family Services and the state Health Department revised state guidance Monday evening that mandated children ages 2 to 5 wear face masks at day care and other child care programs, including summer camp.

The rule was rescinded after pushback over the last week from providers and facilities concerned about how to effectively keep facial coverings on toddlers and young children.

Both state agencies agreed to change the rule, which is effective immediately, to encourage, but not mandate, young children to wear masks.

“Both agencies understand how difficult it is to require the youngest children to wear masks and have jointly agreed to revise guidance allowing child care providers to continue the practices and protocols that have been in place since the start of the pandemic by encouraging, not requiring, children aged 2-5 to wear masks, effective immediately,” according to a combined statement Monday night from the state departments. “The safety of the children in child care programs is of paramount importance.

“We thank the providers who have worked so hard since the start of the pandemic to remain open to serve the families of those who could not stay home and we recognize their valiant efforts in serving working families who need quality, reliable and safe child care.”

The state is investing federal funding to expand child care programs, especially in underserved areas, according to the joint statement.

“We strongly encourage any remaining child care staff who have not been vaccinated to do so as soon as possible to prevent the spread of COVID,” according to the Health Department and OCFS on Monday.

The coronavirus vaccine is approved for New Yorkers ages 16 and older, or 12 and older for Pfizer-BioNTech’s two-dose shot.

“This mandate was never based in science or simple common-sense, especially at a time when he was signaling that mask wearing will soon be a thing of the past for many adults,” Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said Monday night. “It caused unnecessary frustration and confusion for providers and parents alike, and I’m glad to see it lifted. I want to thank the providers and parents who joined us to voice their opposition to this out-of-touch edict, and all of my Senate Republican colleagues for their advocacy on behalf of our youngest children.”

The announcement came after Senate Republicans held a virtual rally Monday morning with several day care providers, parents, business owners and lawmakers from across the state pleading with officials to repeal the rule.

During the rally — held before the order was repealed — University of Buffalo Child Care Center Executive Director Liz Cercone questioned why the mandate was put into place as COVID-19 infections have slowed and vaccinations increased.

“Children in our programs were not required to wear masks at a time when no center had vaccinated staff, but now as things seem to be getting better across the state and the country, suddenly this mandate [was] put into place,” Cercone said late Monday morning. “There has been very little child-to-child spread in child care centers. We have families who are considering removing children from our centers because of this mandate.

“We have children telling us that they can’t wait to go home last week so that they don’t have to wear their masks,” she added. “In our field, we are not supposed to force children to do anything based on our regulations, but we’re supposed to force them to wear a mask? This doesn’t make any sense.”

Centers were given fewer than 24 hours to prepare for the new rule, and were notified of the changes Wednesday afternoon before they took effect Thursday.

Several lawmakers, including Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, said Monday their offices were inundated with calls from upset parents, child care providers, camp leaders and other New Yorkers to change the rule since last week’s implementation.

“Most of what I’m going to say has been said, but maybe if we just keep repeating it, this governor will hear us,” Jordan said at the rally. “Our message? Gov. Cuomo, unmask our kids! Gov. Cuomo’s new mandate is patently absurd. This mandate poses a big burden on parents and providers. It is not realistic to expect a 2-, 3- or 4-year-old will keep a mask on for seven, eight or nine hours per day while in day care. There’s no answers, no justification, just more mandates from this governor. There’s no masking the fact that Cuomo’s a colossal disaster.”

Others raised concerns toddlers and young children continuing to wear face masks would impede speech and social development.

“Young children and staff safely navigated the heights of the COVID-19 pandemic without the onerous mandate of forcing children as young as 2 years old to wear a facemask for the entirety of the day,” said Assemblyman Jake Ashby, R-Castleton, a member of the Health Committee. “Creating this new mask requirement has no basis in fact or science and will only further the damage done to our youth over the past year as a result of COVID-19 protocols. Our state is recovering from this pandemic, and our policies should reflect that.”

Several Democratic legislators also spoke out against the mandate before officials altered state guidelines.

“At a time when we have lifted most mask requirements for vaccinated New Yorkers, it is, quite frankly, absurd and contradictory for the Department of Health to now require toddlers as young as 2 to wear masks in day care and camp settings when they have never had to before,” Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, said in a statement Monday afternoon. “The DOH needs to act immediately to reverse its new and unreasonable requirement.”

Representatives from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office did not return requests for comment Monday about why the state implemented the federal rule, the science or data to support the regulation or what state officials reviewed and recommend it.

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