Halloween is a dress rehearsal this year

We can't let our guard down during the holidays if we want to protect our friends and family from COVID-19
Photo of two people carving a pumpkin wearing masks
Maniac Pumpkin Carvers, artists based in Brooklyn, New York, help New Yorkers transform pumpkins into jack-o'-lanterns at an outdoor, socially distanced pumpkin carving class at Rockefeller Plaza on Oct. 22, 2020 in New York City. Many Halloween events have been canceled or adjusted with additional safety measures due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Cindy Ord / Getty Images

Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece from two infectious disease experts who have been working to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Halloween is just around the corner. Kids dressed up like Ghostbusters or the Black Panther, and a plastic jack-o'-lantern overflowing with treats are what we expect. Our natural impulse is to pretend like everything is normal, even if it’s just for one get-together or celebration.

But in 2020, the specter of COVID-19 follows us everywhere. We’ve seen the news. We have been cautious. We’ve spent endless hours on video chats with our co-workers, friends and family. We are tired. Everyone wants to get “back to normal” and have their kids experience the joys of a more carefree and social childhood. Vigilance is hard to sustain.

Dr. Steve Pergam talks about how to celebrate safely at a recent Fred Hutch event. Fred Hutch file

Halloween isn’t the holiday that we in health care and public health see as the highest risk. It is most often outdoors, can be approached safely and cautiously by avoiding large crowds, masking, washing our hands and limiting indoor get-togethers. But what’s really scary? In these days leading up to Oct. 31, the U.S. has been reporting its highest coronavirus case numbers since the pandemic started. Cases around the Puget Sound are rising as well. It is time we reconsider how we celebrate.

We strongly recommend avoiding traditional trick-or-treating. It is important to understand that this experience, while exciting for kids and adults, can be worrisome for those who are trying to avoid exposures, especially since Halloween often leads to spontaneous group gatherings. This year avoid having that costume party at your house because most people won’t keep their masks on.

Photo of Seth Cohen
Dr. Seth Cohen Photo courtesy of the University of Washington

The holidays often lead us to shift our thinking. They lead us to eat too much and stay up too late. Holidays make us feel special, safe, protected and even invincible. They encourage us to let our guard down.

These lapses are exactly what the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses to run amok — like our kids with a stomach full of candy. The virus pounces when we aren’t cautious and ignore safety measures. It’s a COVID-19 Halloween trick to make us think that one day won’t make a difference. But it can, and it does.

What if instead we used Halloween to develop new traditions? Safe examples could include organizing a scavenger hunt for candy, watching a scary Halloween movie or carving pumpkins and drinking warm apple cider together at a kitchen table. Talk with your neighbors about how you can honor the spirit of Halloween while taking precautions. Be proactive and creative. Use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance documents to help those discussions. We are excited to learn about new traditions that arise in our own communities in response to the pandemic.

Halloween is also a test.

How we address this holiday sets the table for the holidays that follow. It is an opportune time to reconsider travel plans, cancel large in-person gatherings and rethink inviting friends over. It is also a time to set expectations with family, especially grandparents and younger children. If we don’t reconsider how we celebrate, we will play into the hands of the pandemic. Masking, physical distancing and efforts to stop the spread will need to continue through these family-focused holidays, even if a vaccine becomes available.

Halloween, Thanksgiving and other winter holidays are synonymous with family. They are built on bringing us together and steeped in traditions — and treats. But the pandemic doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate together this year, it just means we need to do so by staying physically apart. It’s critical that to remember that our loved ones, friends and neighbors are more important than any single holiday. It’s not candy or turkey or tinsel that makes the holidays sparkle, it’s the connections with our friends and family.

Halloween and other holidays happen every year, but in 2020, they provide us an opportunity to demonstrate how much we care about each other and our community by enjoying the season safely. In doing so, we can make next year’s holidays even sweeter, by helping to ensure the people important to us are healthy and able to celebrate.

Dr. Steven Pergam is an infectious disease expert at Fred Hutch and the medical director of infection prevention at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. In addition to playing a critical role in keeping patients, caregivers and our community safe, he is helping guide the FDA's complex decisions around approving COVID-19 vaccines as a member of the agency's vaccine advisory committee.

Dr. Seth Cohen is a clinical assistant professor at the UW School of Medicine and the clinic chief of the Travel Medicine Clinic at UW Medical Center - Northwest. He is also the medical director of infection prevention and employee health at UW Medical Center - Northwest. He specializes in caring for patients who may have compromised immune systems due to cancer, transplantation or autoimmune disease, as well as people living with HIV. He is especially interested in general infectious diseases, including sexually transmitted infections, surgical infections, and travel and tropical medicine.

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