Ruel Gregory has three kids in the Halloween hot zone and anxiety is high in her household as October approaches.
Her 13-year-old, Bella, is planning her first independent Halloween with friends. And her two youngest have been planning out their costumes and most efficient trick-or-treating routes. Nine-year-old Delilah is going to do something related to “Twilight,” and 7-year-old Henry is leaning toward Power Rangers, “but with muscles.”
Halloween 2019 around their Central District home was like a block party due to a trick-or-treating resurgence.
“We especially liked the neighborhood thing,” Gregory said. “Trick-or-treating last year was just walking around in the neighborhood. It was really nice to be able to do that. That’s how we all trick-or-treated growing up. The kids really loved it and we would run into people and form bigger and bigger groups of kids. So that was great.”
Now they wonder if they’ll even get to leave the house in this horror show we call 2020. Halloween has never been scarier for parents thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, a metaphorical Grinch who’s about to steal another holiday.
While Gov. Jay Inslee and the Washington State Department of Health have yet to officially weigh in on the holiday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its guidelines for Halloween on Tuesday, and it’s pretty clear our Halloween experience will be very different this year.
The infection numbers are trending in the right direction, but not nearly fast enough. So the CDC recommends we nix traditional trick-or-treating, indoor haunted houses, hayrides, costume parties and travel to festivals.
And there’s no doubt here in Washington that we’ll still be under mask and gathering mandates that won’t allow swarms of kids to run amok.
“The first thing that has to be stressed is the outbreak’s not over and it’s not going to take a break just because we’re on holiday,” said John Scott Meschke, an environmental health specialist and professor at the University of Washington.
Many counties, including King, remain in modified Phase 2 of Inslee’s reopening plan, and even those that have moved to Phase 3 aren’t yet ready for parties and large gatherings. That means no haunted houses at the strip mall or costume contests at your local bar, and a radically different approach to trick-or-treating.
“I cannot imagine any scenario” that would allow a normal Halloween, Meschke said.
“So you’ve got to go through the same kind of controls or steps that you would normally for any type of interaction. So you want to maintain distancing. So you want to maintain mask use. Cloth mask, not Halloween mask — which, you know, people can get creative. There’s a lot of ways to integrate that.”
Meschke’s predictions are in line with what the CDC and others are saying about the holiday. Along with the CDC’s recommendations, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s infectious diseases chief, has advised us to “hunker down” through the end of the year. And other municipalities, including Los Angeles, are telling residents to modify their usual Halloween behavior.
Of course, many U.S. residents have flouted social distancing guidelines — especially college students, who are likely to party unabated on Oct. 31. The danger of college gatherings has been proven again and again this summer, including here in Washington, where UW fraternity parties and the return of Washington State students to Whitman County led to fresh coronavirus outbreaks.
Beyond the young, there’s also been a steady erosion of coronavirus etiquette due to disaster fatigue. And there appears to be a creeping hope that the numbers will continue to trend downward, even though the temperatures — and the predicted likelihood of a spike due to easier transmission in cold weather — are starting to drop.
That leads businesses that rely on a piece of the billion-dollar Halloween-industrial complex to remain cautiously optimistic. Over at Party @ Display & Costume, folks have been calling to see if the 68-year-old Seattle institution is open — which is a good sign, economically speaking.
“We feel like people are definitely going to have small, family parties,” manager Scott Clark said. “I mean, if you have kids at home, you’re going to do a small Halloween party for your family. And so you’re still going to want to decorate for sure. And you’re still going to want to dress up and have fun and keep your kids entertained that way as well.”
If health officials formally recommend folks stay home, though, Clark sees a much quieter season.
“There’s still going to be a few people who are still going to want to try costumes and stuff,” Clark said. “But I know for us it would definitely hurt us. We would definitely see a drop — and we’re expecting a drop now as it is.
“We’ve been trying to hit every angle and we are trying to imagine worst-case scenarios. But you know, we also still want to proceed with work. As far as we know, Halloween is still happening. We’re kind of putting on the persona of, ‘It’s still good. Nobody panic.’”
Clark has a point. There are a lot of ways you can proceed. He says he’s heard customers batting around ideas like drive-by trick-or-treating, where costumed children would stand on the sidewalk outside their homes and receive candy from passersby.
There is already precedent for this.
“Over this whole summer, we’ve seen a huge influx of orders for balloons because people do drive-by birthday parties,” Clark said. “We’re not sure how that’s going to work, but we’ve heard rumors that customers have mentioned.”
Meschke also thinks there are ways to still have fun.
“I’d probably recommend, if people have an outbreak pod, for groups of families to get together and, alternatively, try to do things online,” Meschke said. “I heard other folks suggesting things like filling Easter eggs with candy and then putting scary faces on them and hiding those around your own yard. So I think people can get creative with this. But I think the gist of it is it’s not safe to fully interact with the public yet.”
As a “moderate risk” workaround to traditional trick-or-treating in which families going door to door to get candy from neighbors, the CDC suggests one-way trick-or-treating: make some individually wrapped goodie bags and line them up on your porch for kids to come up and grab.
Asked if he thought the mass exchange of candy was a good idea, Meschke had reservations and a recommendation that’s not going to make anyone very happy.
The virus has “shown survival on surfaces for some length of time, maybe three, four days,” Meschke said. “But they’ve also suggested that that’s not a very common route. But for people that wanted to take steps, you could have candy that you give your kid (on Halloween night) and let the candy (they get trick-or-treating) sit for a week before they get the rest of it. So I think there’s workarounds, but the gist is people should keep masks, keep the distancing and try to minimize interactions to other folks as much as possible.”
In the end, Gregory and her husband, Andrew, who own Post Alley Pizza, are going to follow the advice of public health officials. They’ve told their kids they need to be realistic and have backup plans.
“My oldest daughter, she was looking forward to going trick-or-treating with her friends. They wanted to do a group costume,” said Gregory, describing a “Pride & Prejudice” theme. “So now they’re kind of talking about alternatives, like them all watching a scary movie on Zoom together or something like that. Because at least that’s still an activity. And then for the two little kids, they’re talking about costumes and I think they’re just saying, ‘It’s going to happen!’”