The case for a coronavirus Halloween
Halloween could be abolished, for all I care. I dislike the feel of cheap, polyester costumes, the look of tacky, plastic decorations, and the taste of artificial sugar. I could also do without our dummy of a dog unraveling into futile hysteria every time a kid walks past our house.
And yet, this year, I find I must rise to the holiday's defense. Canceling Halloween because of the COVID-19 pandemic is unnecessary and perhaps even counterproductive, the opposite of the harm reduction approach we should be pursuing. It could unintentionally make the pandemic worse by providing excuse for riskier behavior later in the holiday season.
The decision of many cities and states, mine included, to discourage trick-or-treating was informed by Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance dividing Halloween activities into categories of low, medium, and high risk. Some of the recommendations are reasonable. For example, going to a haunted house in which "people may be crowded together and screaming" does seem like a bad idea. This year, probably don't celebrate Halloween at a large indoor gathering where you exhale vigorously into friends' and strangers' faces.
But much of the CDC's Halloween guidance is seemingly arbitrary, and, in the case of trick-or-treating, contrary to months of public health messaging. "Carving or decorating pumpkins outside, at a safe distance, with neighbors or friends" is a low-risk activity, the CDC says, yet if the same group of people gather outside at the same distance for a costume parade or scary movie night, that's a medium risk. What is the meaningful difference here? The CDC does not deign to say.
One would think trick-or-treating would be in the lowest category of risk. After all, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said we do not need to wash food packaging coming home from the grocery store because there is "no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the #COVID19." Surely that applies to packaged candy received from neighbors, too. Are the candy packages that have sat idle and untouched in their homes for a couple weeks somehow dirtier than packages straight from a busy store?
Moreover, the public health consensus has long been that brief, masked, outdoor interactions present a very low risk of coronavirus transmission. We should "get as much outdoors as [we] possibly can," Dr. Anthony Fauci has said. Going for a walk on the beach is not reckless. Saying hello to a friend you spot at the park is fine. The same is true of masked campaign door-knocking — and trick-or-treating.
Trick-or-treating is outdoors and need not involve screaming or crowds. It consists of walking around outside, feeling very normal wearing a face covering, saying brief hellos, and then going back to your own house to eat candy. Is this not the most pandemic-appropriate major holiday tradition we have? Compare it to New Year's Eve parties, Valentine's Day dates, Easter services, Memorial Day cookouts, July 4th picnics, Labor Day block parties, Thanksgiving dinners, or Christmas morning. Every single one puts participants in longer, more intimate contact with people from outside their immediate household than trick-or-treating does. Most involve sustained, communal food consumption, which means no masks. Halloween is by far the safest option here.
So why does the CDC place "trick-or-treating where treats are handed to children who go door to door" among high-risk activities we must avoid? Is this another "noble lie," like the early discouragement of mask use is thought to be? Does the CDC believe we can't understand the difference between a brief, masked greeting outside a door and a long, breathy conversation inside a neighbor's home? If that's the fear, just say so. Anyone remotely inclined to abide by public health instructions can grasp that distinction and act accordingly. We don't need more condescension than we've already had.
As it stands, shutting down trick-or-treating may well do more harm than good. It won't accomplish much for public health because there is so little risk to be forestalled. It will, however, ratchet our national anxiety up one more notch — perhaps to some families' breaking point. "We followed the rules on Halloween," they might reason, "so we deserve to do whatever for Christmas."
The CDC has released more limited guidance for Thanksgiving and hasn't published specific recommendations for Christmas or New Year's Eve as of this writing. But barring some unforeseen development, we know what the advice will be: Cancel any indoor celebration with people not in your household — which, at least in the northern half of the country, means cancel just about everything. Sit at home and be sure not to drink any alcohol because that's also a high-risk activity that can spread COVID-19. Do another Zoom.
There must be some realism here, some recognition that even for the most conscientious, compliance with public health ideals won't be perfect. Some trade-offs and mistakes are inevitable, and mental health matters, too. We are staring down a long winter, and we need to seize every opportunity to combine normalcy and responsibility. Halloween is one such opportunity, and irrationally rejecting it without scientific basis is an unforced error.
I don't want to go trick-or-treating, but a lot of people do. Let them mask up and take a neighborly walk.