This story was reported by Joan Gralla, Bart Jones, David Reich-Hale, Craig Schneider and Beth Whitehouse. It was written by Jones.
Unvaccinated children ages 2 to 5 will not be required to wear masks at day care or summer camps, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration said, reversing a mandate it issued a week ago as a COVID-19 preventive measure.
The Office of Children and Family Services and the Department of Health said the state government will be "encouraging, not requiring, children ages two-to-five to wear masks, effective immediately." Older children are also encouraged to wear face coverings "as feasible."
The original mask mandate, announced last Wednesday, was criticized as too strict by some elected officials, along with camp and day-care owners.
It would have obliged children over the age of 2 and staff who are not fully vaccinated to wear face coverings except when eating, drinking, showering, swimming or sleeping and resting.
The agencies said in their statement Monday evening that children’s safety is "of paramount importance," and that "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."
Children up to age 11 are not eligible to be vaccinated against the virus because the federal government has not yet approved any vaccine for that age group.
Some day care and camp owners on Tuesday praised the reversal.
"We’re very happy that the state has made a more common-sense regulation to allow children to remove the masks when outdoors," said Will Pierce, owner and director of Pierce Country Day Camp in Roslyn and president of the 30-member Long Island Camps and Private Schools Association.
The guidance applies to self-contained camps; it is different for camps that are run in a public park, for instance, he said.
What to know
Unvaccinated children ages two to five will not be required to wear masks at day-care or summer camps, the state said Tuesday.
The state guidance indicates responsible parties “should encourage” campers two and older, who are not fully vaccinated, to wear face coverings. Older children are "encouraged but not required" to wear masks.
COVID-19 indicators continued to drop or remain at low levels, with Long Island’s seven-day average at 0.72%.
The mask guidance is essentially the same as it was for last summer; the state had temporarily announced some tightening of the restrictions, but backed off those requirements after backlash and pressure from camps, day care centers and parents, said Mark Transport, co-owner of Crestwood Country Day Camp in Melville.
"There was not one parent who called to say, ‘I’m so happy the state is requiring our kids to wear masks outside,’" Transport said.
The requirements specify that campers can remove the masks when they are unable to tolerate a face covering for physical activity or when they’re swimming.
Some camps on Long Island did not open last summer, while those that did were operating at much lower capacity and under multiple restrictions.
Under the regulations announced last week, staff who are not fully vaccinated must maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from other unvaccinated staff. The sites must determine and enforce a capacity limit that ensures "appropriate" social distancing.
All the regulations from last summer, such as performing daily health screenings and observing hand hygiene throughout the day, are still in place, Pierce said.
Meanwhile, students in the Commack School District no longer must wear masks at their desks or during recess or physical education classes, as long as they maintain 6 feet apart, school officials said Tuesday.
Officials noted that Commack schools maintain 6 feet of social distancing in classrooms.
The decision is in tune with the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition, "sneeze guards" are being removed from students' desks.
The new directive remains voluntary, so students can still wear masks if they choose to do so, officials said. Some desks with guards will remain in each room for students who wish to use them. Students will still be required to wear masks on buses.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Tuesday urged state health officials to allow children in pre-K through grade 12 to remove masks in school while outdoors.
"More than a year into the COVID-19 global pandemic, we know COVID-19 transmission when we are outside is marginal and outdoor spaces are by and large safe," he wrote to Health Commissioner Howard Zucker.
"During these last few weeks while school is in session, as temperatures rise and our children are able to be outside more often, it is both logical and compassionate to allow them to remove their face coverings and enjoy the fresh air."
'Trending in the right direction'
COVID-19 indicators continued to drop or remain at low levels in state data released Tuesday.
The daily statewide level of positive results from 76,551 test results on Monday was 1%, while the seven-day average was 0.89%, Cuomo said in a statement.
On Long Island, the seven-day average was 0.72%, while in New York City it was 0.68%.
"The hard work of New Yorkers combined with the vaccine have helped us prevent the spread of COVID and keep our state's numbers trending in the right direction," Cuomo said in the statement.
The number of new confirmed cases was 43 in Nassau County, 48 in Suffolk County, and 288 in New York City.
Statewide, 16 people died of coronavirus-related causes on Monday, including two in Suffolk.
County Executive Laura Curran said Tuesday that Nassau has hit a milestone: 60% of the population has received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.
She added that in those 18 years or older, 73.6% have received at least one shot.
Moderna could become option for children
Moderna said Tuesday its COVID-19 vaccine strongly protects kids as young as 12, a big step toward putting the two-dose shot on track to become the second option for that age group in the United States.
Dr. Henry Bernstein, a member of the CDC’s advisory committee and a professor of pediatrics at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, said having more vaccine available for kids would be "great news, and the faster we are able to get kids vaccinated, the quicker we can get back to routine activities."
Bernstein added that parents should be comfortable inoculating their children.
"People should realize that at this point, hundreds of millions of doses have been administered," Bernstein said. "There’s no reason to think it’s not safe. The benefits of protecting against COVID-19 outweigh the risks of getting COVID-19."
A second option for kids could help accelerate vaccination efforts, said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine.
"Parents who had a good experience with a certain vaccine often want to pick the same vaccine for their children," she said. "This news will encourage more parents to vaccinate their children."
The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is the only one currently approved to be used starting at age 12. Moderna aims to be next in line, saying it will submit its teen data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other regulators early next month.
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