By MINA KAJI, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Rachel Davis was brought to tears last week as she pleaded with American Airlines gate agents after getting booted from a flight because her 2-year-old son would not wear a mask.
“What do you want me to do — duct tape his face?” she asked. “He’s 2 years old, he doesn’t get it!”
Davis called it her lowest point as a mother, and she’s not alone. Her story is just the most recent to surface as airlines grapple with how to handle child mask requirements.
In late July, major U.S. airlines started revising their policies from “young children” being exempt from wearing masks to “all children age 2 and up” being required to wear a face covering in order to fly.
Over the last two months, at least five mothers have struggled to get their toddlers to keep their masks on after boarding their plane, and were subsequently removed from their flight.
Chaya Bruck was traveling with her six children in August when they were all kicked off of a JetBlue Airways flight after her 2-year-old daughter refused to wear a mask.
“Should I tie her hands, what should I do?” Bruck asked the JetBlue flight attendant.
These incidents have inspired a Change.org petition calling for the airlines to increase their minimum age requirement for mask use, but the carriers say their policies align with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that any child over the age of 2 should wear a mask.
The World Health Organization, on the other hand, says children aged 5 years and under should not be required to wear masks.
“The exact age is somewhat arbitrary,” Dave Harrison, M.D., a pediatric cardiology fellow and ABC News contributor said. “The idea is that everyone should wear a mask to minimize spread, but it’s all about safety first. The recommended age is based on a child’s ability to remove the mask by themselves in an emergency situation.”
Harrison explained that there is currently no evidence that a child that’s age 5 versus age 2 has any difference in risk associated with COVID-19 severity.
But there is a difference in behavior.
“Having had two children go through that phase, I can tell you it’s no easy feat to get them to do anything that they don’t want to do,” said Heather Greenwood Davis, contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler. “Kids at that age vary in temperament from day to day, hour to hour. Any expectation that a 2-year-old will follow any rule has to be tempered with the reality that kids at that age are prone to testing boundaries.”
Greenwood Davis said experts she’s spoken to have suggested letting kids choose their own masks, talking to kids about how great it is that they are helping keep everyone safe, and gradually increasing the amount of time that they have the mask on at home as ways to make a potential future trip easier.
“There has to be a way that airlines can adjust procedures to make sure that parents and kids have enough time and space to adopt safe procedures,” Greenwood Davis said. “We’re all going to have to work together to get through this.”
A flight attendant who wished to remain anonymous told ABC News they are trained to first try to calm the situation and then call for a customer service manager.
Charles Leocha, president and cofounder of the Washington, D.C., consumer advocacy group Travelers Unite, thinks flight attendants should be given some sort of leeway for children between the ages of 2 and 5.
“Someone could be just having a bad day,” Leocha said. “The kids are upset. Maybe their diaper’s unchanged. I mean there’s a whole bunch of reasons that there could be for not wanting to wear a mask. And I think that at some point we have to have some common sense coming into this situation, especially when you’ve got mothers and families traveling together, and you’re saying everybody has to go.”
Leocha suggested airlines could try creating more space between young children and other passengers.
“Given the fact that most of the flights are not packed with every single seat filled, there’s always a way that you can get a small kid into an area of the plane where they’re not really going to be right in someone’s face,” Leocha said.
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