The Yakima County Board of Health plans to petition the state to change masking requirements for youth so facial coverings are not required when they’re outdoors and involved in extreme physical play.
The proposal was approved by the board last week in lieu of making its own recommendation after the director of the health district warned that could put the health district in a precarious legal position.
The motion was approved despite concerns among some at the meeting about the potential negative impact on community health that a change could cause.
During a Wednesday morning board of health meeting, County Commissioner Amanda McKinney proposed the reduction in requirements for youth up to 18 who were outdoors and in “extreme physical play.”
The discussion came the day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its masking rules. It said people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer have to wear a mask while walking, running, hiking or biking alone outdoors, or when in small gatherings. Masking during crowded outdoor events is still needed, it said.
McKinney said that children have “not particularly been impacted by COVID” and that parents should have the right to choose to send their kids to sports without masks. She pointed to relatively low transmission in Yakima County schools.
There have been 524 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Yakima County schools since August, 16 of which are believed to have been from school-based transmission.
“Young children, who as we know are not impacted by COVID and not known to be spreading COVID, are being required to run up and down the field wearing masks,” McKinney said.
Most are not wearing their masks properly during these activities, she said, defeating the purpose. At the same time, adults who are paid to play sports are allowed not to wear masks despite spread among adults being a concern, she said.
She recommended that the board remove its recommendation that kids up to age 18 in Yakima County wear masks “when in intense physical play” outdoors, such as in sports or recess.
Board member Dr. Sean Cleary disputed some of McKinney’s points.
“Children are affected by COVID. There have been 3.7 million cases of children testing positive for COVID,” he said, referring to national data. “Over 300,000 children have been hospitalized. There are 43 states who report their deaths by age. Forty of them have had children die. The number of children that are infected by COVID have actually been increasing and it’s pretty obvious that they are now the reservoir for COVID, and particularly the variants.”
In Yakima County, he said over 20% of positive COVID-19 tests were among children. He said they have the same ability to spread the disease as adults, and the CDC guidelines make a point that relaxed guidelines should not be implemented in communities where transmission is high or vaccination rates are low, such as among children. Cleary also said children are often better at wearing masks properly and regularly than adults. He recommended that the board follow set guidelines rather than make its own.
Health board member Naila Duval also expressed concern over a change to local mask guidance among youth activities and said it would deter people like herself from allowing their kids to participate in sports.
Others supported the proposal, and McKinney followed up by saying that adult community members who want to be protected against the virus have already had ample opportunity in Yakima County to get vaccinated, and appointment availability remains.
“We cannot save people from something they don’t want to be saved from,” she said.
Before a vote, Andre Fresco, executive director of the Yakima Health District, warned that the proposal would put the health district and board in opposition to state masking requirements, and the proposal was voted down.
But County Commissioner LaDon Linde proposed a new motion for the Yakima County Board of Health to petition the state to change its guidelines as McKinney had suggested. Board member Patricia Byers called the effort a chance for the community to use its voice and share its position with the state.
In a new vote, the motion to petition the state was approved in a 5-2 vote. Duval and Cleary voted against it.
Reach Janelle Retka at email@example.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka