Wednesday was a wonderful day for COVID-19 news in New York City.
Cases went down by 10 percent on Tuesday alone, and were 41 percent lower than just two weeks ago, as the omicron variant exhibited the same church steeple–shaped trendline as observed previously in South Africa and Great Britain. Hospitalizations—the critical measure when it comes to evaluating the systemic stress of mass infection—have flattened, maybe peaked. New York Times resident pandemic reality-checker David Leonhardt wrote a Wednesday piece headlined "Omicron Is in Retreat." As the state's case numbers tumbled 75 percent off their omicron highs, Gov. Kathy Hochul said in her State of the State speech that "We hope to close the books on this winter surge soon."
And yet, at Hochul's orders, my 6-year-old once again went to school Wednesday not just masked, but with an upgraded, close-fitting KF94, the best about which could be said that at least it beat the thick paper covering she had to wear earlier this month (after cloth masks were deemed insufficient), which had prompted her to seriously complain (really, for the first time in 22 months) and rip that thing off her face the first chance she got.
As Leonhardt gingerly suggested, if omicron is receding (which it obviously is here in Brooklyn), "it will be time to ask how society can move back toward normalcy and reduce the harsh toll that pandemic isolation has inflicted, particularly on children and disproportionately on low-income children. When should schools resume all activities? When should offices reopen? When should masks come off? When should asymptomatic people stop interrupting their lives because of a Covid exposure? Above all, when does Covid prevention do more harm—to physical and mental health—than good?"
Here's an idea for an answer to the question of when, in places where omicron is way below peak: Right the hell now. Let us plan, today, for a concrete off-ramp we can drive off no later than next week, so that the pre-adult population we have inexplicably and unforgivably forced to bear the worst day-to-day brunt of pandemic restrictions can once again breathe free. Watching unmasked politicians yuk it up at a packed Madison Square Garden while millions of kids maintain their indoor distances swaddled in face coverings is just no longer tolerable.
Two-year-old New Yorkers are still wearing masks in congregate settings by diktat of the governor, and in contravention to global standards and scientific understanding. (I get a real kick out of NYC-based journalists expressing outrage at the alleged heavy-handedness in Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin letting parents decide whether they want to mask their own schoolkids, rather than just issuing a blanket ban, as did the governors of 14 states, all of which voted for Joe Biden in 2020.)
Five-year-olds are not allowed inside most indoor businesses unless they can either show proof of full vaccination (immediately excluding three-quarters of New Yorkers between the ages of 5 and 11, and virtually all foreign tourists from that demographic), or a recent negative COVID-19 test. Unvaccinated teens in public schools are barred outright from extracurricular activities like sports and band.
All of this needs to go in the trash, beginning with the masks.
The last remaining argument to "stop the spread" rests on the sheer logistical strain that infection waves inflict on local health care systems. If hospitals and/or ICU beds are overwhelmed, patients even without COVID-19 can unduly suffer. When the spread stops, and reverses course, and those hospital numbers trend inexorably downward from maximum capacity, there is no policy justification left for making kids suffer even one day more.
Every adult who wants a COVID-19 vaccine has one. Every single relatively healthy kid is not at serious risk for disease, which has been true since the beginning of the pandemic with every subsequent strain, and well-known among epidemiologists and public health authorities since at least May 2020. As for adults, "the available evidence," Leonhardt writes, "suggests that Omicron is less threatening to a vaccinated person than a normal flu."
Might the next COVID-19 variant be more infectious and/or deadly than omicron? Sure. But until then, wherever the health system is no longer bursting at the seams, the kiddie restrictions need to be removed first, the adults' soon after. We can put those Biden masks in the drawer for next time if need be.
Don't want to heed such advice from a cranky libertarian? I get it. So let's hear testimony about the measurable damage these shackles have inflicted on the youngs, from people in left-of-center institutions. (And please do follow the hyperlinks.)
Jonathan Chait, New York magazine:
It is now indisputable, and almost undisputed, that the year and a quarter of virtual school imposed devastating consequences on the students who endured it. Studies have found that virtual school left students nearly half a year behind pace, on average, with the learning loss falling disproportionately on low-income, Latino, and Black students. Perhaps a million students functionally dropped out of school altogether. The social isolation imposed on kids caused a mental health "state of emergency," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The damage to a generation of children's social development and educational attainment, and particularly to the social mobility prospects of its most marginalized members, will be irrecoverable.
David Leonhardt, The New York Times:
Suicide attempts have risen, slightly among adolescent boys and sharply among adolescent girls. The number of E.R. visits for suspected suicide attempts by 12- to 17-year-old girls rose by 51 percent from early 2019 to early 2021, according to the C.D.C.
Gun violence against children has increased, as part of a broader nationwide rise in crime. In Chicago, for example, 101 residents under age 20 were murdered last year, up from 76 in 2019. School shootings have also risen: The Washington Post counted 42 last year in the U.S., the most on record and up from 27 in 2019.
Clear masks or cloth masks with a clear plastic panel are an alternative type of mask that may be helpful when interacting with certain groups of people, such as:
People who are deaf or hard of hearing
Young children or students learning to read
Students learning a new language
People with disabilities
People who need to see the proper shape of the mouth for making appropriate vowel sounds
This last guidance came quietly on January 14, much to the amazement of those who have been for the past 19 months vilified as hyperbolic, teacher-endangering scientific fabulists for daring to suggest that hiding faces in kindergarten does tangible damage to the acquisition of key learning skills.
Watch the expressions of relief yesterday in the British Parliament when U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the removal of school mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions. (Yes, it's the British Parliament, but still.):
"From tomorrow we will no longer require face masks in classrooms and the Department for Education will shortly remove national guidance on their use in communal areas." pic.twitter.com/Sg6nfJFH9h
— Anthony LaMesa (@ajlamesa) January 19, 2022
Keep in mind that the U.K., like all European countries, has had far less masking and school closure than the U.S. Now watch this testimony from a former British schoolkid about what masking in classrooms was like:
'I watched and felt like my entire life was falling apart because of what this government did to young people.'
Welcoming the removal of face coverings in schools, political commentator Sophie Corcoran breaks down as she recalls her experience of wearing a mask in the classroom. pic.twitter.com/zX6uA7v1X4
— GB News (@GBNEWS) January 19, 2022
This is not the average experience, of course! Most kids (including my own) have probably muddled through without experiencing the type of resulting trauma that might reduce them to tears. But we know the average learning experience these past 22 months has been degraded, we know that there are plenty of individuals—even if they're not our own happily compliant children!—who have endured negative consequences from a mitigation that in post-vaccine, post–omicron peak settings has no reason to exist, and in fact does not exist in much of the civilized world.
So as the adults, particularly in the types of Democratic polities where pandemic restrictions are prevalent, come around to either acknowledging the harms they have inflicted or pretending that they knew all along this stuff went too far, let's throw the kids a damned party. A gigantic, indoor, bouncy-house mosh pit of a party, where the little ones can paint each other's faces, the teens can go make out in the corner, and the only masks to be seen will be the dirty old paper coverings in a gigantic pile in the bonfire outside.
They—we—need relief from the restrictions imposed by neurotic, statist, and ultimately selfish adults, and to enjoy the cathartic release of a great big yawp of a celebration. Once we have liberated and begun the long process of making amends to our kids, we can then move on to unshackling ourselves.
Let's do this, Brooklyn, and New York City, and New York state, and everywhere else where omicron is winding down yet restrictions remain. Let's plan next week's Kids Liberation Day. And vow to never, ever, do this again.