“When I’m three, I have to wear a mask.” 

This is what my two-year-old son Jack said in a sad voice when we were talking about his upcoming birthday. It made my heart sink. 

Jack knows who Mayor Hancock is; his preschool teachers showed the class a picture of the Denver mayor and appealed to his authority when some of the tiny students struggled to keep their faces covered at school. 

Jack is too young to understand this, but Mayor Hancock’s authority has some limit. Like other public servants, he has had to make very difficult decisions during the COVID pandemic. But all along, we trusted our leaders to roll back pandemic-related restrictions as we learned more about the COVID-19 virus and as we progressed in our efforts to contain it. 

To their credit, experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) just issued updated guidance on masking for vaccinated people, saying they may go without masks in most places. Similarly, Mayor Hancock, following the lead of Colorado Governor Polis, recently relaxed masking requirements for some group settings where 80% of those present have been vaccinated. 

But both the CDC and the City of Denver’s latest revised face covering rules missed one important change. It’s now time—past time—for jurisdictions across the country to remove all mask mandates aimed at young children. Denver’s current order, which applies to children age 3 and up, is out of sync with current science, and it poses potential harm to children.

There is reason to believe that young children, whose emotional and verbal development depend greatly on human faces, are suffering harm from wearing masks and being surrounded by adults and peers masked in public places.

As the World Health Organization has held since August, no one under the age of 5 should be required to wear a mask. WHO and UNICEF advise that children aged 12 and over should wear a mask (under the same conditions as adults).

The science suggests that young children do not transmit COVID-19 (even new variants of it) in a significant way.

The science concerning the low risk of COVID-19 among young children has long been clear: A July 29, 2020 article in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “Reopening Primary Schools during the Pandemic” states, “Given the same exposure to infected household members, children under the age of 10 seem to become infected less frequently than adults and older adolescents; studies of both household and community transmission find that children 9 or younger are also less susceptible than 10-to-14-year-olds.” 

Data also suggest that infected children under 10 years of age are less contagious than infected adults, and transmit the disease much less often than adults do (as found in a large South Korean study in summer 2020). In the August issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Association of Pediatricians, an article titled “COVID-19 Transmission and Children: The Child Is Not to Blame” reviews data on children and COVID and concludes that “children are not significant drivers of the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Furthermore, an increasing number of childcare providers, teachers, parents, and other adults in Denver (and elsewhere) are now vaccinated. 

While the consequences of mask wearing in young children merit further study, there’s reason to suspect harm: According to a 2011 review of literature (about other outbreaks of disease), mask wearing in children has been found to impose a psychological burden on children, affecting their fear, anxiety, and language development. Masks also impede young children’s “social referencing” or ability to read social cues and emotions.

Hadley Heath Manning and her son Jack.

Yet, despite all of this, Denver’s mask order still applies universally to three year olds.

In part because the City of Denver’s policy is so alarmist and anti-science, it encourages noncompliance, and worse, it undermines the respect citizens like me have for our local government rules.

The time to free young children from mask wearing has come—and gone. This would be a policy change for the better. And better late than never.

(Of course, relaxing the City’s mandate would not stop families from masking their young children if they choose, based on their individual circumstances. And Colorado’s statewide order applies to children 11 and up.)

There are still a few more days before Jack’s birthday.