STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Over the past two years, the effects of the coronavirus have been compounded for children with special needs. Dependent upon routine and predictable environments, battling sensory issues and cognitive impairment that make mask-wearing a near impossibility for some, those with disabilities are challenged daily simply by taking a trip to the store or other indoor setting.

“The pandemic has been difficult in so many ways. The fact that my son can no longer enter some facilities has been absolutely heart-wrenching for us,” noted Alex B., a mother from Westerleigh who says her 4-year-old son with autism cannot physically tolerate a face covering.

A statewide indoor mask mandate went into effect in December, with an exception if businesses or venues implement a coronavirus vaccine requirement to enter the establishment. The mandate extends to both patrons and staff.

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Yet Centers of Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and the Americans with Disabilities Act, state that individuals with disabilities should be shown “reasonable accommodation” if they cannot safely wear a face mask for cause related to their disability. But several recent national headlines prove otherwise: An Arkansas family was booted off a Spirit Airlines flight in March because their nonverbal son with autism could not comply; a Pennsylvania Disney store became the center of controversy when employees denied entrance to an unmasked 7-year-old with a developmental disorder.

Murky Interpretations

And on Staten Island, mandate interpretations are equally murky: Alex, who requested anonymity due to the controversial nature of this topic, said her family was recently turned away at the entrance of the Staten Island Children’s Museum because her son was unmasked.

“We have gone to many zoos, museums and activities where he has been excused from the mandate,” Alex noted. “It’s difficult for me to understand why — if the CDC is issuing an overall medical exemption for children with sensory issues — is not everyone complying?”

It’s an issue that has been debated since the start of the pandemic. How do members of the special needs community comply with mask mandates when their disabilities often prevent them from doing so? And while some organizations are allowing for a medical exemption to the face mask rule, why are others not?

The Staten Island Children’s Museum’s current rules, published on its website, state that all children 2 and above need to wear a mask. Defining the health and safety of visitors and staff as a priority, and citing the challenges of protecting the public health of their particularly vulnerable demographic — children under 12 and their families — the museum refers to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 in its visitor guidelines, and alludes to its ability to easily spread in high-touch spaces, which are common at the facility.

“We frequently review the public health guidelines, and at times when not requiring masks is safe for our visitors and staff and is sanctioned by public health officials, we are always happy to consider such things,” the museum noted in a statement when questioned by the Advance/SILive about the incident.

A review of children’s museum policies throughout the area demonstrated similar restrictions, even for visitors with special needs: The Children’s Museum of Manhattan notes on its website that if “you have a medical disability that prevents you from being able to wear any type of acceptable face covering,” you will not be able to visit the facility at this time. The Brooklyn Children’s Museum offers a similar message, stating “if you or your child are unable to wear a mask, we regret that we cannot accommodate you.”

An administrator at the Staten Island Zoo told the Advance/ that it is compliant with the New York State mandate, checking vaccination status at the gate and requiring indoor masking. But the facility — which is a sensory inclusive location, offering badges, fidget tools, noise canceling headphones and other resources for guests with special needs — does assess and tries to meet the needs of families on a “case-by-case basis” whenever possible.

New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center noted that while accommodations have been made in the past, it currently cannot allow any visitor in unmasked. Alex said that the center last month accommodated her son with a wristband indicating he has a disability.

‘Very Rare Occasions’

“In the past, on very rare occasions, we did accommodate a child who could not wear a mask,” the science center said in a statement. “However, we are not able to offer such accommodations anymore.”

After inquiring about the city’s stance on the matter, the Advance/SILive was directed to the state.

The state Health Commissioner’s Determination on Indoor Masking noted that “any person, past their second birthday and ‘medically able’ to tolerate a face covering, must wear an appropriate mask while in any indoor place, regardless of vaccination status.”

For families navigating these pandemic woes, this seems to be a gray area that can be interpreted in different ways.

“We’re focused on encouraging self-advocacy and promoting global understanding, acceptance and inclusion, because for those with autism and special needs, mask-wearing does present challenges,” noted Arianna Esposito, director of services and support with Autism Speaks, a national advocacy and research organization. “There are such diverse needs within the autism community as a whole, and navigating COVID has been particularly difficult. Because requirements change so frequently, it’s our recommendation that parents or individuals navigate these spaces before attending — call ahead to verify the constraints, take the stress out of the situation and allow for a conversation to happen about the best steps to take.”

In an emailed response to Alex, which the Staten Island Children’s Museum shared with the Advance/, Dina Rosenthal, executive director, was apologetic but firm on the institution’s mask requirements.

“We too are pained by the fact that those who cannot tolerate face coverings are unable to participate in our indoor options, and have done our best to offer alternatives,” she offered. “I am sorry that your family was surprised by the health measures we have in place. Their purpose is to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the hopes of eradicating it so that our business and lives can get back to normal.”

Noting that the museum historically takes pride in being accessible and accommodating for visitors with special needs, Rosenthal also stated that the museum is currently trying to do so within the guidelines.

“I think there should be a better understanding of disabilities, and exceptions need to be made depending on the circumstances,” Alex concluded.

© 2022 Staten Island Advance
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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