How to enjoy classic Halloween, fall activities in an age of COVID-19

Portrait of cute Little Girl in costume of red hat in the park. Happy Halloween during coronavirus covid-19 pandemic quarantine concept. Kid wearing medical mask

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Estimated read time: 9-10 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — We’ve reached the “spooky season,” but let’s face it: 2020 has already been spooky as is.

Since the novel coronavirus reached Utah in earnest back in March, it’s impacted all sorts of normalities all the way down to events. That’s continued over the past seven months. Halloween — and fall events in general — are full of rituals that, much like everything else in COVID-19’s way, are now impacted or will be impacted by the novel coronavirus.

Here’s how you can safely participate in your favorite fall events and what public health experts recommend in the age of COVID-19.

A Halloween staple: Trick-or-treating

Halloween is often one of the first things associated with fall, and trick-or-treating is a classic activity tied to it. Trick-or-treating as we know it may date back to the 1930s, per It gained widespread popularity in the 1950s — with “trick-or-treat” a phrase solidified in pop culture through a 1951 Peanuts cartoon.

Some 70 years later, the National Retail Federation estimated $2.6 billion was spent on candy in the U.S. alone last year. The federation expects a slight drop in 2020 Halloween spending and a slight drop in trick-or-treating participation but still forecasts over $8 billion to be spent on Halloween.

So if you plan on having your family trick-or-treat this year, how should you do it?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its Halloween guidelines last month. It lists all trick-or-treating options, including “trunk-or-treat” events where treats are handed from the trunks of cars in a parking lot, as having moderate or high risk compared to other low-risk Halloween traditions like family pumpkin carving time, a virtual Halloween costume contest or displaying holiday decorations.

One moderate-risk solution option is participating in “one-way” trick-or-treating where children can collect individually-wrapped goodie bags in a grab-and-go fashion. Families are encouraged to stay socially distant in this scenario, and those leaving out treats are advised to wash their hands thoroughly before and after preparing any goodie bags.

Intermountain Healthcare provided more tips on its blog last week. They advise anyone considered high risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes — those with certain pre-existing health conditions susceptible to illness and those 65 or older — to not open their door for trick-or-treaters.

Either way, trick-or-treaters should wear a mask that covers the mouth and nose. People should also keep a safe distance from others.

“A costume mask isn’t a substitute for a cloth mask unless it’s made of two or more layers of breathable fabric that covers your mouth and nose,” Intermountain experts wrote. “Don’t wear a costume mask over a protective cloth mask because it can be dangerous if the costume mask makes it hard to breathe. Instead, consider using a Halloween-themed cloth mask.”

Other trick-or-treating tips include:

  • For those handing out treats, don’t use your hands to pass out candy; use tongs instead. Wear a mask when opening the door and wash your hands frequently.
  • For those trick-or-treating, keep your mask on at all times and stay at least 6 feet from other households. If there’s one group already at a door, wait for them to leave before approaching.
  • Don’t consume candy until the wrappers have been wiped down.
  • If you are to hold a trunk-or-treat event, cars should be at least 6 feet apart and individuals should move in a single direction while also social distancing.

Some larger trick-or-treating events have already been canceled. For example, Hogle Zoo announced Friday that it won't hold its immensely popular “Boo at the Zoo,” which it says regularly draws 10,000 to 15,000 guests.

Halloween parties

Costume parties are another popular Halloween ritual, especially for those who have outgrown trick-or-tricking. Attending indoor costume parties are considered among the higher risk Halloween activities.

This comes as parties — high school and college — are already under scrutiny from public health experts after the number of COVID-19 cases began to spike, especially among 15-to-24-year-olds.

Activities should involve only people from the local area as much as possible, and the number of attendees at events should be limited. Make sure extra masks and hand sanitizer are also made available to guests.

Gatherings, in general, are encouraged to be outdoors as much as possible. However, if you hold an event inside, opening windows and doors is one way to increase ventilation at indoor facilities, the CDC points out.

Haunted houses deal with adjustments

Visiting haunted houses is another favorite Halloween activity. Much like with traditional trick-or-treating, the CDC advises customers to enter haunted houses at their own risk.

Going through a haunted forest that enforces one-way movement and is open-air is a safer alternative — albeit still with moderate risks, according to the CDC. As with other public activities, the CDC recommends appropriate mask use enforcement and that people keep more than 6 feet apart.

“If screaming will likely occur, greater distancing is advised,” CDC officials wrote. “The greater the distance, the lower the risk of spreading a respiratory virus.

Haunted houses were allowed to reopen this year with adjustments to account for the pandemic. For example, Nightmare on 13th in Salt Lake City was one of the first haunted houses to start back up for the holiday season, when it reopened last month.

Employees are screened for symptoms daily and wear protective masks. Customers are required to wear face coverings; the business’ actors won’t interact with anyone not wearing a mask. Tape markers were placed to help all groups know how to stay 6 feet apart from other groups and there’s frequent sanitizing of public spaces. The business was already positioned so that customers flowed in one direction and weren’t grouped at the end.

Mike Henrie, the business’ owner, said they’ve gone to a new ticketing system that limits the number of tickets sold per half-hour — some 50% to 60% fewer compared to some weekends last year — to help ensure that customers aren’t overcrowding the building.

So how is business? Despite the pandemic, he’s found there is “still quite a bit of interest” in visiting haunted houses this year. He believes that as long as everyone follows guidelines that everyone will be safe.

“We’re a little bit down from last year. I don’t know if that’s mostly due to not being able to have as many people per day as we normally do or if there’s some demand problem,” he said.

“I think people are ready to do something fun and safe together,” he continued. “We’re not seeing that nobody wants to come. We're not seeing that at all. We were actually sold out last Saturday night, which is a good sign.”

Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”)

Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday celebrated every fall, as well. The two-day holiday, Nov. 1-2, is about celebrating life and remembering the dead, sometimes filled with music, dance, activities and food, but also sometimes quietly celebrated at home.

The CDC released guidelines specifically for the holiday. The recommendations discourage large indoor celebrations with singing or chanting, crowded indoor gatherings or events and large dinner parties with people coming in from different households.

Instead, it recommends virtual get-together celebrations. Other traditions like playing music at home that deceased loved ones enjoyed, making and decorating masks or making an altar for the deceased, and setting out pillows and blankets at home for the deceased were other low-risk activities the CDC recommended for the holiday.

Some moderate risk activities include having small group gatherings outdoors or open-air parades. Visiting and decorating graves of loved ones with household members is also considered to be a moderate risk activity. In each case, people should be separated more than 6 feet apart.

There are many events in Utah held each year for the holiday. And adjustments are expected to deal with COVID-19. Planners for Ogden’s annual Dia de los Muertos announced in August that it would move forward.

“We are not sure if we will be able to host the same event as last year, but we will not allow that to prevent us from creating a fun and creative way to celebrate with all of you,” they wrote in a Facebook post.

Just around the corner: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, which falls on Nov. 26 this year, is another fall holiday on the CDC’s minds.

The agency recommends that people celebrate this year with a smaller dinner with only people who live in the same household, having virtual dinners with friends and extended family, and watching sports, parades and movies from home. They advise to cut out large indoor gatherings with people outside of your household or attending events like parades.

Moderate risks include small outdoor dinners with family and friends, and attending small outdoor sporting events where safety precautions are in place.

As for the shopping holiday thereafter, COVID-19 has already resulted in Black Friday changes. Big retailers like Target, Walmart and Best Buy announced back in July they’d close for Thanksgiving. Shopping experts expect more online deals this year; some retailers even pushed sales well in advance to adjust for COVID-19.

The CDC recommends shopping online this year instead of shopping on Black Friday; it lists shopping in crowded stores on or after Thanksgiving as a higher-risk activity.

Other fall favorites

Some fall events are also associated with the end-of-year harvest. There are recommendations for these as well.

The CDC lists hayrides or tractor rides with people from different households as a higher-risk activity, much like normal trick-or-treating, crowded costume parties and crowded indoor haunted houses.

Visiting pumpkins patches or orchards is considered a moderate-risk activity as long as people use hand sanitizer before touching produce, the wearing of masks/face coverings is encouraged and enforced, and people can keep 6 feet apart.

Corn mazes can be treated similarly.

Homecoming is another fall tradition for high schools, colleges and universities. CDC recommendations for homecoming fall mostly into guidelines for large gatherings, which are generally discouraged.

Some campuses have found creative workarounds. Southern Utah University, as an example, held “Stay At Homecoming” last month, which included social media decoration contests, a virtual 5K and a virtual “shoebox parade” with floats made from shoeboxes.

“All of us here wish to thank you for allowing us to give our students the best homecoming experience possible, while following state of Utah health guidelines for physical distancing and contact tracing,” said Ron Cardon, director of alumni relations, in a statement about the plans back on Sept. 18.

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