Valentina Padilla, 6, plays on the slide at the Deering Oaks playground in Portland on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Even though she’s been vaccinated against COVID-19, Natalia Belt plans to continue wearing her mask this week when the state lifts masking requirements in a major step toward a return to pre-pandemic normalcy.

“I just think it’s important,” said Belt, the mother of 10-year-old and 6-year-old girls. “I want to model it for them and I feel like we can still as vaccinated (people) get sick. It’s not going to be bad for us, but I don’t want to risk infecting my children. Personally, I’m going to continue to do the right thing for them.”

As she watched her daughters run around the playground at Portland’s Deering Oaks on a recent morning, Belt said she doesn’t expect much to change for her family in the next few weeks, even as the state moves to lift physical distancing and masking requirements. “Until the vaccination for children comes out, I think we will continue to do business as usual as far as COVID goes,” Belt said.

Gov. Janet Mills announced May 14 that Maine would be adopting U.S. CDC guidance that fully vaccinated adults do not have to wear face coverings indoors. Mills clarified the guidance in an executive order last week lifting the requirement for face coverings in all public settings with the exception of schools and child care settings.

The loosening of restrictions, set to take effect Monday, is being seen by many as a positive step. But for parents of young children the changes present a dilemma. The CDC guidance still states that those who aren’t fully vaccinated, including children under 12 for whom there isn’t yet a vaccine, should continue to wear face coverings indoors.

Parents, especially those who are vaccinated, find themselves in the difficult position of having to navigate guidance that may apply differently to them than their children and having to continue to enforce pandemic rules like masking and social distancing with young children while many adults give them up. Others are concerned for their children’s health as restrictions loosen, and they feel left behind in the latest guidance.

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“I think people are frustrated in general,” said Dr. Laura Blaisdell, vice president of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “We’re all really done with this pandemic and unfortunately the final mile is our youngest individuals in our community and we simply need to continue to protect them. I think parents are frustrated. When you have a family that is mixed vaccinated and unvaccinated, it is tricky to figure out how to behave and what is safe.”

The academy continues to recommend that young children over age 2 wear face masks until they’re eligible to be vaccinated. Older children age 12 and up can receive the Pfizer vaccine, but it may still be months before a vaccine is available for younger children. Pfizer has conducted clinical trials in children ages 6 months to 11 and is hoping to receive authorization for vaccinations by early 2022. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have also conducted clinical trials but have yet to get authorization for patients under 18.

Joy Engel pushes her 4-year-old and 8-month-old children on swings at her Cape Elizabeth home on Wednesday. Engel said the new guidelines for masking and distancing that go into effect this week will be difficult to navigate for families. She plans to continue wearing her mask although she is vaccinated, and her family will continue to limit the activities they do in public because her children are unvaccinated. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Joy Engel, a Cape Elizabeth mother of two, said the new guidance presents a tricky situation for parents. “I wish these guidelines had changed when everyone in this country could get a vaccine,” said Engel, 38. “I hear people on personal choice. Right now I don’t have the choice to vaccinate my children, so I wish this had been lifted after everyone could make a choice whether or not to get a vaccine.”

Engel has been vaccinated but said she plans to continue wearing her mask to model the rules for her 4-year-old son. Her family will also continue to limit the activities they do since Engel said she has no way of knowing whether unvaccinated adults who may be carrying COVID are choosing to shed their masks.

“Kids are are not immune to it,” Engel said. “We also don’t know the long-term effects of it on children. We’re starting to see adults have lasting symptoms. I just don’t feel like I’m going to risk my children’s health. My baby can’t wear a mask, so I’m certainly not going to bring her anywhere.”

Some parents said they don’t feel a need for their children to continue masking as many have mild or no symptoms when compared to adults. Ian Campbell, whose 7-year-old son is a student at North Yarmouth Academy, said he doesn’t plan to enforce mask-wearing with him outside of school settings, where masks are still required. Both Campbell and his wife are vaccinated and all three had COVID last winter.

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“Looking at the age-stratified risks, why are we doing this in the summer?” said Campbell, 41. “Am I really going to walk into a place unmasked and have my 7-year-old wear a mask? It feels wrong.”

At the same time, Campbell said if his family was at a store or other business and his son was asked to put a mask on, they would comply. “If a store said something to us, we would absolutely put it on,” Campbell said. “We don’t make a big deal about it; we just don’t see a need for him to be wearing it.”

Data on the number of COVID-19 cases in Maine children under age 12 was not available from the Maine CDC last week. As of Thursday there had been 12,414 cases – about 19 percent of total cases — reported in people under age 20 since the pandemic started. No Maine children have died of the virus. There are about 160,000 children under age 12 out of Maine’s total population of 1.3 million.

The vaccines are highly effective and only a small percentage of fully vaccinated people will still get COVID-19 after being exposed to the virus that causes it, according to the U.S. CDC. As vaccinations around the state increase in older people, the risk to unvaccinated children goes down but doesn’t go away completely, the Maine CDC director, Dr. Nirav Shah, said at a media briefing last week.

“That’s why if you’re 9, 10, 11 and not eligible for vaccines yet, wearing a mask is still a great way to protect yourself,” Shah said. “The masks protect you from transmitting the virus but they also protect you or your child from getting the virus.”

Blaisdell, the AAP vice president, also said it is important for children to continue to mask and socially distance until a vaccine is available to them, especially since the major variant in the U.S. right now, the B117 variant, has been shown to be fairly efficient at transmitting between children. As of Thursday, there were more than 840 cases reported in Maine schools in the last 30 days and dozens of open outbreak investigations.

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“I do understand that people have this general sense that children don’t get sick from the disease or they aren’t great at transmitting it, but if you look at where new cases are coming from, they’re coming from younger individuals,” Blaisdell said. “We’re having a lot of outbreaks at schools and those outbreaks are still very disruptive. They cause quarantining of classrooms and sports teams, so unfortunately we need to continue to be vigilant for a little bit longer until we can get our youngest individuals vaccinated.”

Avery Aupperlee, 5, with her grandfather David Curry at the Deering Oaks playground in Portland on Wednesday.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

David Curry, whose granddaughter Avery is scheduled to start kindergarten in Scarborough in the fall, said the mask and distancing guidelines have been confusing for her, and he’s noticed a change in her demeanor over the last year. “The isolation really got to her,” said Curry, who lives in South Portland.

Maine lifted its outdoor mask mandate on April 27 but said masks were still recommended in settings where physical distancing is hard to maintain. Curry said his daughter continues to have Avery wear a mask outdoors because she isn’t vaccinated. It can be confusing, especially when other families are taking different approaches.

“You can see it here,” he said gesturing to the playground full of children and parents at Deering Oaks, some of whom wore masks and some who did not.

“She questions it,” Curry said. “She doesn’t understand why. We try to explain to her that she’s not vaccinated, which she understands. I’d like to see them all vaccinated by the time school opens.”

Nearby, Jamie Johnson arrived at the playground with her 4-year-old daughter, who asked her mother to wear her mask before they went to play. “She said, ‘You’re not wearing your mask. You can’t be here,'” Johnson said. “If she has to, then I feel like I should. They don’t understand.”

Johnson said she feels it is important for children to continue to wear masks and she already feels nervous about the prospect of people who are unvaccinated but don’t want to wear masks posing a risk to children when guidelines are further relaxed.

“Unfortunately for folks with kids, not much is going to change,” said Johnson, 36. “Even though my husband and I are vaccinated, both of our kids are too young to be. I wouldn’t put them in a situation I personally haven’t lived for the last year. Really nothing has changed for them. I will continue to not have them go in large gatherings or be unmasked around other kids.”


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