Science

Unlock the Damned Playgrounds, Already

Playing outside is one of the safest group activities kids can do, yet Gavin Newsom and other pols are extending the pandemic misery indefinitely.

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"While much else" in California "has been allowed to gradually reopen—bars, restaurants, gyms, the zoo, even museums," KPBS San Diego reported earlier this month, "playgrounds appear to be closed indefinitely."

Young kids contract, suffer from, and transmit Covid-19 at significantly lower rates than adults. Their mental health during the pandemic has taken "a serious hit," studies keep showing (and personal experience keeps reaffirming), due to the social isolation and familial cabin fever. High among the most coronavirus-safe activities children can engage in with people outside their immediate family is playing outdoors.

Nevertheless, politicians persist in wrapping police tape around facilities where kids might find some relief. Worse yet, in some misgoverned jurisdictions there are no stated criteria for letting them play.

"There is little mention of playgrounds in the most updated Guidance Documents from the California Department of Public Health, which indicate playgrounds should be closed," wrote State Sen. Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) in a Sept. 16 letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom. The Golden State's reopening plan, she wrote, "does not appear to include any reference to under what tier playgrounds or sport amenities in public parks may reopen, leaving cities, counties, and families confused."

Newsom, who like his New York counterpart Andrew Cuomo loves to dress up his questionable policies in the pompous robes of "science" (recent example, in the service of his plan to ban fracking and gas-powered automobiles: "We need to reconcile that fact that there are no Democratic thermometers and no Republican thermometers. There is fact and there's reality as well as observed evidence. It's not a belief system, it's an acknowledgment: the facts are the facts"), has not only failed to answer Gonazalez's simple request, but his agencies also keep issuing crackpot justifications for its sandbox lockdowns.

Playgrounds are closed, an unnamed California Department of Health spokesman told KPBS, in part because of "the possible large number of individuals touching the same surface, particularly younger children who are less likely to practice hand hygiene and wear masks consistently."

In other words, children are being punished for California bureaucrats' failure to keep up with the science, which by July was definitive: Covid-19 is just not being spread on surfaces. That hasn't stopped the state from issuing The Boy in the Plastic Bubble-like restrictions on sharing equipment and airspace for those athletes and teams fearless enough to consider, you know, practicing (obviously, competition is still off the table).

If I sound contemptuous and dismissive, that's because I am. Even way back in April we knew enough about the virus to determine that it's safer to let a dude surf rather than drag him away in handcuffs. I can see freaking out about, say, elementary schools back when the science was more sketchy and the epidemic more acute. But summer camps did not feature significant spread, schools have reopened to far less infection than feared, and even in the recently corona-surged California the infection rate was down to 2.8 percent last week and hospitalizations "dropped to a level not seen since the first week of April."

As the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stated in its 2006 Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, "Timely, accurate, credible, and coordinated messages will be necessary during a pandemic, and…inconsistent reporting or guidance…can lead to confusion and a loss of confidence by the public," the plan advises. A "guidance" on indefinite playground-shutdowns that includes neither a credible scientific explanation nor specific benchmarks and timetables for cutting the police tape is not timely, not credible, not consistent, and decidedly not helpful.

Actually, more than "not helpful"—it's actively, wickedly harmful. Here's an old California friend of mine, mother of three, snapping like a twig on Twitter earlier this week:

Another old baseball-coach friend of mine, as I mentioned on The Reason Roundtable this week, has taken to organizing a kind of Prohibition Little League, complete with lookouts, code words, and so forth. More pervasively, in two trips to Southern California over the past month I experienced a palpable sense of fearful people being at their absolute wit's end, reporting crisis-spike levels of irritability, anger, and depression. Minus the apocalyptic fires, it reminded me very much of New York City three months ago…when the playgrounds were still closed.

Back then, my 5-year-old would routinely say eerie/ominous things like, "How do I know I'm even a person anymore?" Her very first post-lockdown playmate, first visit to the playground, first trip (via COVID-car!) outside the city, first day of summer day camp, were all experienced as moments of tear-inducing liberation. Humans, and kids most of all, are not hardwired to be hamsters, stuck for months on end in Habitails, watching the plastic slowly move in. They need movement, contact, interaction, or they will be damaged.

The abstract of a recent study in Science puts the case succinctly: "Children have a low risk of COVID-19 and are disproportionately harmed by precautions." In slightly longer form:

[E]xisting evidence points to educational settings playing only a limited role in transmission when mitigation measures are in place, in marked contrast to other respiratory viruses. In the event of seemingly inevitable future waves of COVID-19, there is likely to be further pressures to close schools. There is now an evidence base on which to make decisions, and school closure should be undertaken with trepidation given the indirect harms that they incur. Pandemic mitigation measures that affect children's wellbeing should only happen if evidence exists that they help because there is plenty of evidence that they do harm.

Italics mine, to pre-confess that if I hear one more smug politician cluck glibly about "following the science" while continuing to support child-harming policies based largely on superstition and/or public sector union muscle, I'm going to lose the last of what remains of my California mellowness. Where the community spread is under control, just open the damned parks.