Halloween 2020: Celebrating in an era of caution, concern and risk

It is an evening filled with memories of younger days, of hobgoblins and masked heroes, princes and princesses walking down suburban sidewalks, often with costumed parents in tow, collecting candy and treats in bulging bags and plastic pumpkins, celebrating with excitement, anticipation and sugar-fueled glee. Parents have long labored to create costumes for their children to share with their neighbors, friends and families, sometimes straining sewing and design skills. Other traditions also are celebrated on and around All Hallows Eve, including Día de los Muertos, when families build altars to remember and honor departed loved ones.

Halloween is big business

Halloween has become big business. Over the decades the holiday has morphed from a relatively simple celebration for kids into an opportunity for elaborate and expensive fun for adults. Some urban festivals are truly memorable, with costumes to rival the imagination and potential for excess.

Americans purchase nearly 600 million pounds of candy a year for Halloween, at a cost of roughly $2.4 billion, accounting for nearly 15% of annual candy sales in the United States. In terms of holiday retail spending, Halloween has become second only to Christmas, with total spending projected to hit $8 billion. Even with projected declines in participation this year, 2020 Halloween spending is still expected to exceed last year’s total.

That’s good news for California’s state and local governments, which will benefit from increased sales tax revenue. But 2020 also brings a host of problems for municipalities as they grapple with how to balance a festive holiday with public safety in the time of coronavirus.

The coronavirus may snatch away the candy

The ongoing pandemic, with recent worrisome increases in infections across the country, is focusing attention of parents and public health authorities on the risks that our gatherings and shared celebrations might pose this year. Like many issues surrounding the pandemic, smart responses are tricky and involve judgment, choices and risks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines for individuals to help them make better decisions about this year’s Halloween festivities. The CDC recommends avoiding traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating, crowded indoor costume parties and indoor haunted houses. The CDC indicates that even costume parties where social distancing can be maintained, including outdoor events with appropriate masks, bear a “moderate” risk of transmission.

On October 13 the California Department of Public Health also issued guidelines for Halloween and Día de los Muertos celebrations. Despite concerns about the impact of the coronavirus, state officials are cautioning prudence but have stopped short of prohibiting gatherings and activities. The state is strongly discouraging traditional trick-or-treating and other activities that bring people together in close proximity.

Local governments face difficult choices

Around the state and around the country, governing agencies have engaged in fierce debate about how to manage the risk of COVID-19 during Halloween. Los Angeles County famously banned many forms of Halloween activity, including trick-or-treating, but backed off the outright ban after just one day, limiting bans to parties, carnivals, and other forms of public attraction. The City of Beverly Hills decided to ban trick-or-treating on its own, a decision other cities around the country have also taken.

These have been difficult decisions to make for everyone involved. City councils and law enforcement agencies are faced with a host of conflicting interests: kids and parents hoping to keep up old traditions, sometimes contradictory public health guidance, pressure from the business community to allow some events to move forward, and so on.

Local governments should be mindful that state and federal guidance could change at any time. As a practical matter, many jurisdictions are electing to rely on self-enforcement for the majority of their safety restrictions. But if tight restrictions become necessary, quick action might be needed to ramp up enforcement capabilities.

Exploring safer alternatives

Families are getting creative to keep holiday traditions alive despite pandemic restrictions. Neighborhoods are feeling especially “spooked out” this year as families spend more time on decorating their yards. Online gatherings, like pumpkin carving and costume contests, will be big this year. The Smithsonian has some great ideas for celebrating Día de los Muertos virtually.

Some folks are even exploring ways to deliver candy to visiting goblins, space heroes and fairies who do happen to come by. One man has built a 30-foot zipline to deliver candy by ghost to his sidewalk, perfect for delivering candies while maintaining social distancing.

Virus impact was slowing but risks remain

Although California’s COVID-19 figures have improved significantly since the summer, there are worrying signs that the fall will see a resurgence here and around the country. The governor and other public health authorities continue to warn Californians to be vigilant, especially with the imminent arrival of the flu season and the return of winter months, when more gatherings are moved indoors.

The latest state information on the pandemic is available at covid19.ca.gov.

Jones & Mayer wishes you and yours a happy and safe Halloween and Día de los Muertos celebrations. We are here to help local California agencies understand their obligations and options as they respond to the evolving COVID-19 crisis. If you have questions about how your agency can protect the public against the coronavirus, please contact Jones & Mayer partner Kimberly Hall Barlow at khb@jones-mayer.com, or by calling (714) 446-1400.