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The last time I went to the grocery store, 10 days ago, hardly anyone was recommending that folks like me—with no COVID-19 symptoms and no particular risk factors—should wear masks outside. But now, as Slate’s comprehensive guide to masks notes, it certainly seems like it’s a good idea to wear a mask whenever you’re going someplace where lots of other people also go, like public transportation or the doctor’s office. So today I wore a homemade mask to the grocery store. Most of the other customers were also wearing masks, from familiar blue surgical masks to, in one case, a University of Florida bandana tied around a face, gator mascot carefully centered. But one customer was notably unmasked: a little boy, 5 or so, tagging along with his (masked) father. Should kids be wearing masks too?
Some should, in some places. “If you’re bringing your kids to a crowded area such as a grocery store or a drugstore, it’s probably prudent to have them wear something over their nose and mouth,” said Allison Bond, a fellow in infectious diseases at the University of California–San Francisco. But kids under 2 shouldn’t wear them, and the older the child, the more good a mask is likely to do.
You may wonder why kids should wear masks at all, considering that children seem to be the group least at risk from the coronavirus. Preliminary data shows they get less sick than adults and are less likely to require hospitalization. But masks (it can’t be pointed out enough) aren’t really for the people wearing them. Sure, a mask might protect you from the direct spray of someone else’s cough, and it’s possible a mask helps remind you not to touch your own face. But the real reason to wear a mask is for everyone else’s benefit, because if you are infected with the coronavirus but don’t know it, you could be spreading it onto this subway pole or that box of bucatini—and a mask can help you avoid that.
And children seem to be uniquely likely to spread the virus. While we don’t yet have data on how many children are asymptomatic carriers of the virus, we do know that at least some are, and if that’s your child, you don’t want them touching the bucatini. Even in the best of times, little kids are germ vectors, given their predilection for touching their faces and, well, everything else. I spent most of my children’s preschool years wiping their noses before COVID-19 was even a thing, so surely masks would be a good idea now.
But not for the very youngest kids. The new CDC guidelines explicitly exclude children under 2 from wearing masks. That’s not, experts told me, because they’re somehow less likely to spread the virus. It’s because it’s just not that safe to obstruct a very small person’s breathing like that. The CDC generally advises against masks for anyone “unable to remove the mask without assistance” or anyone experiencing breathing difficulties. (This is apart from the fanciful notion that any self-respecting baby would allow you to tie a mask around their face in the first place.)
But the further kids get from toddlerhood, the better candidates for masks they become—under certain circumstances. “If you’re walking around a quiet neighborhood and you’re always going to be 6 feet from other people, the risk of you getting an infection or sharing an infection is tiny, and won’t decrease substantially if you wear a mask,” said Bond. But if you’re headed off to the grocery store with a kid in tow, it would be great to mask them … if you can.
Of course many children are very particular about what they wear on their bodies; anyone who’s spent an unproductive hour fighting with a 6-year-old about whether a tiara is appropriate garb for church knows as much. I think you owe it to your community to give it your best shot. “It doesn’t have to be a mask,” Bond noted. “A scarf, a bandana—anything to cover the nose and mouth as much as you can.” Appeal to your child’s love of accessories or their concern for fellow human beings. Tell them they’re dressing up for Second Halloween as a bandit, or a Dust Bowl farmer, or a ninja. Bribe them with ice cream or more screen time (if it is possible, in these challenging days, for your child to have more screen time).
Now, the older a child is, the more likely that you’ll be able to reason them into a mask. And the younger a child is, notes Dean Blumberg, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at UC–Davis, “the more likely they will be to not wear the mask properly, or reach under the mask.” If the prospect of your stubborn, screaming child tearing off their snot-covered mask and flinging it at passersby puts you in a cold sweat, consider the tip Emily Oster delivered in her great newsletter: Whenever it’s possible, “it is probably easier not to bring your kids to stores.”
And teens? Well, that’s easy. If your teen is leaving the house, give them a mask. Blumberg points to teenagehood as the age when masks are really most likely to have a positive effect. But also: Why is your teen leaving the house at all? Teens should be texting their friends, scoffing at online learning, and playing Animal Crossing. Who knows what they’ll get up to out there!