Rye Spalding-Green turns five on March 23rd. He planned to ring in his fifth circle around the sun at the local recreation center, alongside two of his friends who share close birthdays.
“Now I guess I’ll set up a Zoom call?” said his mother Lisa Spalding. “Drop off a lollipop at his friends’ doorsteps and spray it with Lysol? There’s no playbook for this.”
With schools and daycare facilities mostly shut down and social distance recommendations in full force, parents are suddenly left with the vexing puzzle of how to comply and also entertain their kids. Doctors and government authorities trying to prevent a catastrophic spike in COVID-19 cases don’t have much sympathy, saying infected children could rapidly spread the disease if allowed to come in contact with others. And so parents like Lisa and her wife are learning to live with a certain level of...pandemonium.
For instance: Spalding, a philanthropy consultant who, like many, is now working from home, said she was trying to do her job one day this week while one of her sons was painting the couch and the other gleefully slapped her leg. And yet, despite the chaos, Spalding said she would feel ashamed if she hosted a playdate.
The effort, painful as it is, matters, experts said.
“I get it. It is so unnatural. Working parents and school-age kids at home. Everybody going nuts. But this week and the next are critical to stem the tide and prevent our hospitals from becoming overburdened,” said Asaf Bitton, executive director of Ariadne Labs, a joint health system innovation center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Children appear to have milder clinical symptoms than adults and to be at substantially lower risk of severe disease, which was also true in the SARS and MERS epidemics, according to a recent study based on Chinese data in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal. It’s likely that the number of cases in children is underreported, in part because their symptoms are so minimal or mild, but they can still infect others and threaten at-risk individuals.
But none of it is easy, especially for parents of young children. Families are cooped up together inside the home. Parents hop on conference calls from the kitchen, while their kids grow bored and reckless from too much time spent indoors and without friends.
Bitton is the father of two pre-teen kids stuck at home due to school closures prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak. When his family leaves the house to play or walk outside, they make a point to stay more than six feet from others and not touch public surfaces.
“That’s not because were hermits. We are social creatures who just need to find a new norm,” said Bitton.
Melrose resident Ryan Bagwell, who has a 2-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, has struggled to adjust to this new ever-changing reality of restrictions and seclusion.
"When they mentioned banning playing tag... that was kind of a strange red line," Bagwell said. "It feels like every day they're coming out with a new restriction. I wonder what they're going to come up with next."
By Tuesday, communities across the region began to shutter outdoor playgrounds to parents and kids hoping to escape cabin fever by getting some fresh air. A photo on Twitter Sunday evening — after a ban on outdoor play-spaces was announced — showed a town worker essentially shooing a group of children away from a park area in Brookline.
"Here's Brookline kids being told by a town official to stay out of the playground. They can still play in the field, just not the structures," tweeted Jenifer McKim, a journalism professor at Boston University and former Globe reporter. "It's going to be a long few weeks. No school, no park play."
Similar precautions were taken in Needham, Wayland, Cambridge, and Somerville. The heightened restrictions come not only as the number of cases balloons daily in Massachusetts and across the nation, but also as new studies about the novel coronavirus are released.
Neeltje van Doremalen, a virologist at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), and her colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont., have done some of the first tests of how long SARS-CoV-2 can last for on different surfaces. Their findings, made public late last week, show that the virus can live on plastic and stainless steel, two common playground materials, for up to three days.
So gone for now are the days of playgrounds and playdates. Time to welcome online phenomena like lunch doodles with Mo Willems, online yoga instruction with Cosmic Kids, Facebook singalongs with Matt Heaton and the Outside Toys, or virtual aquarium visits.
Or take a cue from the nearly 5-year-old Rye Spalding and make the rounds by video messenger, saying hello and singing happy birthday to all your friends with a smile and wave.