Whitmer official expands mask requirement to children as young as 2

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration is expanding a requirement to children as young as 2 years old that residents wear masks during gatherings under a new epidemic order unveiled Friday.

The policy change comes amid surging COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates in Michigan. The state has led the nation in new cases per population for two weeks, and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan's chief medical executive, described the situation as "dire" on Thursday.

The new order maintains the 50% capacity limit on indoor dining at restaurants and a 15-person limit on indoor residential gatherings. Some public health experts had called on Whitmer to do more to restrict gatherings and shut down certain activities to combat the high case rates.

The mask requirement previously exempted children younger than the age of 5. Expanding the mask rule to children ages 2 to 4 also requires "a good faith effort to ensure that these children wear masks while in gatherings at childcare facilities or camps," according to the Whitmer administration.

Fifth-grade teacher Kelli Mason talks to her students on the first day of classes at Scotch Elementary School in West Bloomfield, Thursday, August 27, 2020.

The new mask policy for children, which takes effect Monday, is meant to address increases in cases among younger Michiganians. It has been recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and urged in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, according to the state.

"Michigan continues to implement smart health policies and mitigation measures to fight the spread of COVID-19," said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. "This includes the requirement to wear a mask while in public and at gatherings, limits on indoor residential social gatherings larger than 15 people with no more than three households, and expanded testing requirements for youth sports.

"Additionally, the most important thing people can do right now is to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine to protect themselves and their families, and help us eliminate this virus once and for all."

Nearly 30% of Michigan adults 16 years and older have been vaccinated, according to a Friday update on the state health department's vaccine website.

Hertel's past epidemic order was set to expire Monday night. Thenew one will be in effect through May 24.

The Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics commended the new order from the Whitmer administration.

"We know that wearing a mask significantly reduces the spread of infection and should be part of the comprehensive strategy to reduce COVID-19, including for children age 2 and up,” organization President Dr. Matthew Hornik said. "Use of masks does not restrict oxygen in the lungs even in children, it is recommended to wear a mask with layers to filter droplets effectively."

'It's going to be difficult'

Officials with the Whitmer administration have been holding internal discussions about extending the mask requirement to younger kids since at least January, according to emails The Detroit News obtained through an open records request. A group of pediatricians signed on to a letter requesting the change that was sent to Khaldun on Jan. 19.

Emily Myers, director of Ferndale Montessori Center, said the health department director’s order for children as young as 2 to wear masks during the day will be challenging. But the child care center and school in Oakland County will follow it, she said.

“It’s going to be difficult,” Myers said. “Some children are more inclined to be cooperative and accepting of that idea. At home, they are already wearing the mask. Other families are not as supportive of the mask mandates. And those kids are not used to it.”

The center, which teaches children ages 18 months to 6 years old, has children organized into small pods. Students ages 4 and 6 are in their own class and wear masks with no issues, Myers said.

The school also requires children ages 3 to 5, which are in their own pod, to wear masks, but there were adjustments over the months.

“It takes them a lot longer to get used to it. They sneeze inside the mask. They put wood chips in it. I told parents we need extra clean masks and a bag for dirty masks,” Myers said. “They end up using two to three masks a day.”

Masks for teachers have been challenging, Myers said, especially for those teaching the youngest students, because children struggle to learn sounds and language if they can’t see an adult’s mouth.

“The way they are learning expressive language is taking longer. They can’t see faces. They can’t see if you are smiling,” Myers said.

One thing she has noticed: Classrooms where children wear masks have little to no infection spread of common school illnesses like pink eye or other viruses.

"They have been fine. Our illness rate has gone down to nothing," Myers said. "The (toddler room) is the only class that has illness go through it. Colds, runny noses."

Monique Snyder, director of the Brainiacs Clubhouse Child Development Center with locations in Eastpointe and Detroit, said Friday she had her younger students practice wearing masks during the day.

"There was a 40% success rate. They are not used to. They took them off.  They don’t know how to breathe in them," Snyder said. "You are dealing with people who do what their body tells them to do."

Snyder said when masks become a part of the daily routine at the center, she said, children will become accustomed to them. Snyder has asked parents to practice mask-wearing with their young children at home.

"It took about two weeks (for the older children) to do the adjusting. Children are more resilient. It's grownups that cause the trouble," Snyder said.

Eateries laud health director

Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, which has often been at odds with the administration during the pandemic, also touted the new order.

"We laud the difficult but appropriate decision today by MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel to extend the existing epidemic order," Winslow said. "While the order maintains limits on occupancy in restaurants, banquets and event centers, it very importantly opts not to close them a third time as has been suggested by some."

Amid the surging numbers, some health experts — including Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — have urged the Democratic governor's administration to issue new restrictions on gatherings. However, Whitmer has countered she doesn't believe the approach will work more than a year into the pandemic.

"We are so incredibly divided after, I think, the politics of the last 14 months," Whitmer said during a Thursday night appearance on MSNBC's "All in With Chris Hayes." "And so it is a very difficult moment where I am still trying to get the Legislature to just deploy resources that the Trump administration sent us."

She continued, "What might seem like a natural thing to do is much more complicated than what the CDC might suggest when you look at the reality here on the ground."

After the number of adults hospitalized with COVID-19 reached a record high of 4,011 Tuesday, the tally dropped slightly the next three days and ended at 3,982 patients on Friday.

The state reported 45,817 new cases of the virus last week, a 19-week high.

cmauger@detroitnews.com