MIDDLESEX - When a community that dubs itself as the “Witch City” steps into the public limelight to effectively cancel Halloween, something pretty terrifying must be afoot.
Last week, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll joined with Mass. Governor Charles Baker at a press conference and urged crowds to stay away from the North Shore community during seasonal Halloween festivities that historically draw as many as 500,000 tourists and travelers to the city’s downtown area.
Worried public gatherings could become COVID-19 breeding grounds that seed new outbreaks across the entire state as Halloween revelers return to their hometowns, Baker and Driscoll also revealed a series of extraordinary measures would be implemented to discourage get-togethers in the Witch City during the final days of October.
The restrictions and crowd control measures, which some say will cripple an already hurting business community that is largely dependent upon Halloween tourism, includes the afternoon closure of all public parking garages and an 8 p.m. business curfew.
“This is just not the year,” said Driscoll of the revelry, which typically attracts around 60,000 people to the community on Halloween night.
As it turns out, Salem is far from alone in being spooked about the risks associated with traditional “trick-or-treating”, haunted houses and community parades, and private costume parties in the middle of a pandemic.
Indeed, as public health authorities are warning that a recent spike in statewide infections are likely the beginning stages of a second COVID-19 wave, officials in every Middlesex East community are now encouraging parents and citizens to think twice about letting costumed children go door-to-door in their neighborhoods in the hopes of getting candy from neighbors.
And though most local officials are leaving “trick-or-treat” decisions up to individuals, state authorities warn that house parties and large gatherings are technically forbidden when guests cannot be physically separated from one another by six-feet of distance.
Under a revised emergency COVID-19 order initially enacted by Governor Baker last March, no indoor gathering can exceed 25 people, while outdoor get-togethers are presently capped at 50 guests.
“Residents and communities should follow safe and healthy tips to participate in Halloween activities that may limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19. As a reminder, any Halloween activities are subject to the current state gathering size limits as well as applicable sector-specific workplace safety standards,” officials from the Mass. Department of Public Health remarked in a prepared statement at the outset of this month.
While local Boards of Health and municipal officials in the area have stopped short of “cancelling” Halloween altogether — as is the case in the western Mass. community of Springfield — area leaders are urging residents to consult trick-or-treating guidelines recently published by DPH and the federal Center for Disease Control (CDC).
The latest CDC advisories for Halloween make clear that the annual rite of handing out candy is amongst the riskiest activity an individual can engage in during the pandemic.
For that reason, public health experts encourage citizens to consider other less risky activities, such as:
• Decorating and carving pumpkins with household members or with neighbors and friends by gathering outdoors in a socially-distanced setting;
• Touring neighborhoods and admiring Halloween decorations from a distance;
• Visiting an orchard, forest or corn maze or other outdoor “haunted” space.
• Hold Halloween at home by hiding candy in and around the house for children to find;
• Organize an outdoor costume parade or contest where participants can keep at a safe distance from one another;
• Watch a scary movie outdoors with guests or at home with immediate household members.
A look at how several area communities are handling Halloween this year follows:
Though Salem might catch all the Halloween headlines, Woburn’s Annual Host Lions Club Halloween Parade on Main Street attracts an estimated 80,000 spectators to the Woburn Center area each year.
However, Woburn, which has been dealt a tough hand by COVID-19 with at least 867 residents testing positive for the pathogen and 28 citizens succumbing to the virus, acted much quicker than Salem in stepping forward to cancel the popular 2.2-mile long parade in September.
In a message to residents at the time, Woburn Mayor Scott Galvin and Host Lions Club officials contended the safety and well-being of the community was much more important than the 63-year-old parade tradition.
“Our main priority is the health and safety of our parade attendees; therefore, due to large crowd sizes and state restrictions we cannot in good faith plan our annual parade. This decision was made with a heavy heart during this unprecedented global crisis,” Lions Club President Chris Kisiel and other parade chairman Leo Thifault announced last month.
Earlier this month, Galvin during a phone interview with The Woburn Daily Times, a sister paper of the Middlesex East, resisted the urge to “cancel” Halloween or discourage residents from partaking in trick-or-treat traditions.
However, with the city’s COVID-19 caseload designated with a high-risk “red” label by the Mass. DPH, the mayor freely admitted that he is concerned about the uptick in local novel coronavirus transmissions as of late. With a closer look at COVID-19 data suggesting that current cases are spreading through family households — as opposed to being concentrated in schools or specific neighborhoods — the mayor is confident Woburn’s citizenry can and will respect the CDC’s Halloween guidelines and take necessary facial covering and social distancing precautions to ensure their neighbors are not put at risk.
“We’re not going to cancel Halloween,” the mayor continued. “But if people want to participate, we strongly encourage them to follow the guidelines. They should be more cautious [because they’re interacting directly with their neighbors], and if a homeowner doesn’t want to [give out candy], they should turn off their home’s lights.”
In a special advisory issued late last week, Galvin and Woburn’s Board of Health offered the following advice to trick-or-treaters:
• Give out treats outdoors, set up table with individually bagged treats for kids to take. Avoid handing out candy directly to trick-or-treaters;
• If you do not wish to participate in Halloween, turn off outdoor lights;
• Only trick-or-treat to those homes with outdoor lights on;
• Wear a face mask or face covering;
• Observe good hand hygiene, including hand washing and use of alcohol-based sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol. Carry hand sanitizer and use it often, especially after coming into contact with frequently touched surfaces and before eating candy;
• Refrain from touching your face;
• Stay home and refrain from Halloween activities, including handing out Halloween treats, if:
you feel unwell or have tested positive for COVID-19.
In a completely different approach to Halloween, Stoneham’s Select Board last week encouraged its business community’s plan to host a central gathering on the Town Common.
Though the concept seems to buck neighboring communities’ Halloween philosophies, town officials say the Stoneham Chamber of Commerce’s proposed “Mask-erade Halloween Parade” will offer parents a much safer alternative to neighborhood trick-or-treating.
According to Meghan Day, the executive director for the Stoneham Chamber, she began organizing the event as an alternative to the town’s traditional “Halloween Stroll” through Stoneham Square. Instead of having families venturing inside of downtown businesses, merchants will instead set up tables on the Town Common off of Main Street.
"With no promotion whatsoever, all of the capacity we would have is full," said Day, explaining during a Select Board meeting last week that tickets are already sold out for the special event.
As of last week, about 15 merchants had agreed to partake in the outdoor event, where candy will be given out to children who march through a carefully-controlled and socially-distanced environment during prescheduled walkthrough time slots.
The event will be held on Saturday, Oct. 31 from 12 to 3 p.m. Organizers are looking at the possibility of expanded access to accept more children and parents, but those interested in participating should first check with the Chamber of Commerce, as pre-registration is required.
I think it's nice and would give an element of normalcy for people. My only concern would be people who just show up and don't leave when their supposed to," Select Board member Shelly MacNeill said during a virtual meeting last Tuesday night. "Frankly, I know I'd feel safer as a parent in going to an event through the Chamber than having my kids go door-to-door. It gives parents a safer alternative."
According to Stoneham Fire Chief Matthew Grafton, who also serves as the town’s emergency management director, there are plenty of other ways for residents to safely enjoy the Halloween season. However, in order to safeguard themselves against unnecessary COVID-19 exposure risks, the fire chief urges the public to refer to the CDC’s Halloween guidelines before venturing out this weekend.
“Community members can still take part in many of their favorite fall activities as long as they take the necessary precautions to prevent further spread of COVID-19,” Grafton said. “We encourage all residents to review the following safety tips and keep them in mind as they plan their Halloween and fall events to ensure they are celebrating safely.”
“Should residents partake in trick-or-treating, they are encouraged to make individually wrapped goodie bags that can be placed at the end of a driveway or the edge of their yard for families to take. Those who do not wish to participate in Trick-or-Treat are asked to shut off their outdoors lights as an indicator,” the emergency management manager added in a prepared statement issued earlier this month.
Reading and Wilmington
Though Wilmington cancelled its annual “Horribles Parade”, municipal officials also say residents should decide for themselves whether to head out trick-or-treating. In a similar sentiment, Reading’s Board of Health has recently encouraged residents to make responsible plans around Halloween weekend plans by referring to state and federal CDC guidelines.
However, local officials from both area communities are making clear that normal “trick-or-treat” practices are considered high-risk activities that could result in the spread of COVID-19.
“We encourage families and all residents to review the CDC guidelines, which view traditional trick or treating (knocking on doors, reaching into a communal bowl of candy) as a high risk activity. There are lots of ways to have fun this Halloween while minimizing exposure to the coronavirus,” the Reading Board of Health noted in a notice to residents earlier this month.
According to the CDC, homeowners and trick-or-treaters can mitigate some of the risks associated with door-to-door visits by doing the following:
Tips for homeowners
• Avoid direct contact with trick-or-treaters;
• Give out treats outdoors, if possible;
• Set up a station with individually bagged treats for kids to take;
• Wash hands before handling treats;
• and wear a mask.
Tips for parents and trick-or-treaters
The CDC says wearing a mask and social distancing are the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during Halloween.
In regards to facial coverings, the federal agency offers the following advice:
• Make your cloth mask part of your costume;
• A costume mask is not a substitute for a cloth mask;
• Do NOT wear a costume mask over a cloth mask. It can make breathing more difficult;
• and masks should NOT be worn by children under the age of 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing.
The Halloween guidelines also includes the following tips:
• Stay at least 6 feet away from others who do not live with you, as
whether indoors or outdoors, you are more likely to get or spread COVID-19 when you are in close contact with others for a long time;
• Wash your hands and/or bring hand sanitizer with you and use it after touching objects or other people;
• Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol;
• Parents: supervise young children using hand sanitizer;
• and wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds when you get home and before you eat any treats.