Harriet Berlin, owner of Artistic Costumes and Dance Fashions in Towson, quickly discovered that stocking the shelves for Halloween 2020 was a different beast.
Vampire fangs are probably out, she figured, but themed face masks are in. Latex masks of werewolves, zombies and ghouls are probably a no-go (who would want to wear two masks at once, after all?), Berlin guessed, but nurse costumes are likely to be a hit.
Berlin’s costume shop on Goucher Boulevard is among the throngs of local businesses making changes this year in hopes of salvaging Halloween during the coronavirus pandemic. Drive-through haunted attractions, socially distant hay rides and masked trips through the corn maze are just a few ways Maryland residents can celebrate before and after Oct. 31.
But experts are somewhat divided on what risks are worth taking this Halloween, especially with a particularly dangerous flu season looming.
Based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines released last week for fall holidays, traditional celebrations like trick-or-treating are considered high risk, along with indoor attractions like haunted houses and activities that could bring strangers in close proximity with one another, such as hay rides.
However, Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security said certain Halloween activities, such as trick-or-treating, likely can be done safely — provided they take place outside and with minimal contact between individuals.
“The transmission of the virus is not something that happens through fleeting contact. It’s 10 to 15 minutes within six feet of each other,” Adalja said before the CDC’s guidelines were released.
As the pandemic lingers and case counts continue to rise, individuals ought to determine what risk level they’re comfortable with, he said, and find ways to enjoy life amid COVID-19.
“Nothing is going to be risk free, and this virus isn’t going anywhere, so I do think it’s important that people start to learn how to implement these common sense recommendations into their daily lives,” Adalja said.
The state health department has said that “Marylanders can participate in outdoor celebrations, but they should do so while adhering to the public health guidance of wearing a face mask, practicing social distance, and avoiding large crowds,” according to department spokesperson Ebony Wilder.
The Howard County health department, meanwhile, has issued guidelines discouraging door-to-door trick-or-treating. If it’s done, individuals should remain in “household groups," candy should be left outside, and trick-or-treaters should sanitize their hands between houses, the guidelines read. The county also issued guidelines stating that indoor Halloween celebrations, including haunted houses, should be avoided.
At Legends of the Fog, a popular haunted attraction in Aberdeen, organizers decided to try a drive-through format for the first time due to the pandemic.
“We just have a lot of at-risk people on our staff, and we just kept struggling to find a way that we were going to do this to be safe for my mom, my dad that are getting a little bit up there in age,” said general manager Patrick Barberry.
Visitors can expect to see a plethora of new haunted scenes, and hear a spooky soundtrack through their car radio — just like they would at a drive-in movie.
“You’ll see something that you’ve never seen before and you may never see again,” Barberry said.
But similar attractions, like Bennett’s Curse haunted house in the Eastpoint Mall and Field of Screams in Olney, expect their attractions to be fairly similar to previous years, with a host of extra precautions including mask-wearing, online ticket purchases, requiring visitors to wait in their cars until called and more frequent cleaning.
Field of Screams opted to close its indoor haunted house, and connect its two outdoor haunted trail attractions to create one, longer experience.
Complicating haunted attractions further, the CDC’s guidelines say: “If screaming will likely occur, greater distancing is advised.”
“We’re not actually training our actors to be yelling and screaming,” said Mike Lado, Field of Screams’ executive director of design creativity. “We’re actually developing some very scary and unique actor experiences while also maintaining CDC guidelines.”
Bennett’s Curse, an indoor attraction in Baltimore County, plans to allow customers to navigate the haunted house in small groups after clearing a temperature check and sanitizing their hands. Organizers also cut down on the number of actors, and increased the number of “audio scares” and animations, said owner Jill Bennett.
Bennett’s Curse has set aside two Thursdays in October for customers to experience the haunted house without any actors, in an effort to encourage those more wary of the virus to make a trip out, Bennett said.
Meanwhile, communities across the region are grappling with how best to dole out fun-sized Snickers bars and miniature bags of M&Ms to any number of young Frankensteins, little Power Rangers and princesses this Halloween — or whether doing so is just too dangerous.
If families do decide to leave their homes to trick-or-treat, the CDC recommends “participating in one-way trick-or-treating where individually wrapped goodie bags are lined up for families to grab and go while continuing to social distance (such as at the end of a driveway or at the edge of a yard).” This activity is considered moderately risky in the CDC guidelines, while traditional trick-or-treating, and trunk-or-treating, are marked as “high risk.”
“You want to minimize multiple little young hands in a bowl,” said Sandra Crouse Quinn, a professor of family sciences in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health.
Baltimoreans like Kurt Miller are still deciding how best to welcome potential trick-or-treaters. Miller, who lives in Hollins Market, said he and his family plan to create goodie bags for trick-or-treaters, and possibly post a sign encouraging visitors to knock on the door, step back and wait for their bag to placed in front of them on the stoop.
“We’re going through like children’s books and coloring books and comic books, just to have a candy and maybe something for 15 to 20 minutes to take your mind off everything else that’s happening,” Miller said.
Miller said he also considered installing a PVC pipe chute that’d send candy from his second floor window down to the ground level, ensuring the experience would be contact-free. He has decided that he won’t go trick-or-treating with his 17-month-old daughter, not least because he knows the dangers of COVID-19, having contracted the virus earlier this year.
“If my immune system was compromised or anything,” he said, " I don’t know if I’m going to be comfortable walking around a chilly October night just to get some candy."
At many local pumpkin patches, apple orchards and corn mazes, this autumn is poised to be fairly similar to the last, with the addition of masks and social distancing efforts.
According to the CDC guidelines, visiting a farm or orchard where social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines are enforced, and where individuals sanitize their hands before touching pumpkins or picking apples, is a “moderate risk activity.” But going on hay rides or tractor rides with individuals outside of your household is considered a “high risk activity.”
At Baugher’s Orchard in Westminster, retired trams from the Ocean City boardwalk now carry customers to their apple orchard, freeing up extra wagons to keep hay rides from getting crowded, said Cyndy Howes, pick-your-own and market manager at the farm.
At Gaver Farm in Mount Airy, officials are requiring online ticket purchases for their “fall fun days,” although customers can come pick out pumpkins without signing up in advance. They also plan to block off the center row during hay rides, said Laura Gaver, the farm’s agritourism manager.
“Families want to find something that is a normal family tradition that they do every year, and something that they can feel safe doing,” Gaver said.