The White House is throwing its annual Halloween bash this weekend, less than a month after President Donald Trump and about a dozen others tested positive for Covid-19 following indoor and outdoor events for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
Masks will be required for guests older than 2. Hand sanitizer will be provided. The president and Melania Trump will greet trick-or-treaters from the South Portico. Guest capacity will be “limited,” the first lady’s office said, without disclosing the expected number of partygoers.
Those planned safeguards take cues from public health experts, but keeping the party on the calendar and Trump off the campaign trail for a few hours close to Election Day broadcasts the White House’s tolerance for risk as the unofficial kickoff to North America’s holiday season begins.
A fall fight pitting personal liberty against public health is unfolding in cities and suburbs nationwide, playing out in Canadian politics, muting Día de los Muertos celebrations and prompting crackdowns on parties in college towns. Families are weighing how children can celebrate autumn traditions after seven months of scuttled schooling, while Halloween weekend’s college football carnival all but ensures that throngs of students will gather not long before they head home for the Thanksgiving break.
“Believe me, as a father I know how disappointing this is for our children,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said last week. L.A. County originally banned trick-or-treating but later walked back that decision to instead discourage the activity, aligning with state guidance that also prohibits gatherings of more than three households.
“Create your own tradition this year, but create one that is safe,” Garcetti said.
Cities, universities and health officials — armed with fresh CDC guidelines — are pushing the public to avoid big parties and consider new ways of celebrating. Door-to-door trick-or-treating and crowded haunted houses are out. Virtual costume contests and family movie nights are in, along with get-ups that feature cloth face coverings.
“The biggest risk is social gatherings with older teens and young adults for Halloween festivities,” said Emmanuel Walter Jr., a pediatrics professor and chief medical officer of Duke University’s Human Vaccine Institute. “If you potentially mix alcohol in with those types of events, you really risk a high-transmission, super-spreader type of event depending on how big the event is.”
Covid-19 cases are surging throughout much of the United States, while cooler weather threatens to drive more gatherings indoors and potentially aggravate the virus spread. Federal health officials expanded their criteria for who’s at risk of contracting the disease, a move that carries major implications for schools and offices.
Sunday’s four-hour White House party for frontline workers, military families and schoolchildren is one half of a split-screen Halloween scene in the United States.
A local ordinance in Beverly Hills, Calif., bans house-to-house trick-or-treating on Oct. 31 and warns violators could face fines of at least $100. Ventura County originally banned trick-or-treating but did an about-face. San Diego County proposed an alternative: “one-way trick-or-treating,” allowing candy-seekers to pick up individually wrapped goodie bags.
After a Labor Day-fueled coronavirus surge at the University of Arizona, system President Robert Robbins said the institution is putting on a massive campaign to cut down big Halloween parties with help from the local police, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, and the Pima County Health Department. House party hosts risk “red-tagging” sanctions and fines, he said, while students will get referred to the university’s dean of students for conduct violations and potential expulsion.
“We’re just doing everything we can to try to limit what’s gonna be another potential surge a couple of weeks after Halloween, before they leave on the fall break,” Robbins said. “So we’re gonna be testing like crazy, isolating and getting people ready to go back home.”
Similar tactics are in store for Madison, Wis., home of the University of Wisconsin’s main campus. The town’s well-known Halloween street festival, now called “Freakfest,” won’t happen this year. Businesses that violate local public health orders face thousands of dollars in fines, while Madison households are encouraged to just leave candy on the porch instead of handing it out. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration wants trick-or-treaters to stay in groups of six or less.
“Trick or treat will not be as normal this year,” said Walter of Duke University. “Understanding that everybody is kind of fatigued from Covid, I just have real concerns about trick or treat as usual, going door to door like we usually think about and large crowds of kids. I just think that’s a perfect way to potentially spread the virus.”
Then there’s Canada, where public health officials in different regions have come up with widely varying Halloween recommendations. Theresa Tam, the country’s chief public health officer, said trick-or-treating should be allowed to proceed with some modifications. She suggested incorporating masks into kids’ costumes, for example. But that didn’t stop health officials in Ontario, Canada’s largest province, from recommending against trick-or-treating a few days later in parts of the province that have been hardest-hit by a resurgence of Covid-19, including Toronto and Ottawa.
That advice prompted a stream of backlash, including from physicians, who argued an outdoor activity where kids can be physically distanced should be reasonably safe. A prominent Canadian health columnist argued the decision was “sheer cruelty” and that public health is about harm reduction, not about “depriving [people] of all pleasure.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who lives in Ottawa, recently confirmed to reporters that his three young children will not be trick-or-treating this year and that his family is considering an Easter-style candy hunt instead.
Yet the White House is pressing ahead.
The party will feature a display of autumn-colored leaves, chrysanthemums and pumpkins. An Air Force string ensemble will be on hand. NASA will display an inflatable rocket. Smokey the Bear will make an appearance. The departments of Labor and Education will display photo backdrops.
The guest list will be capped at an unspecified number of people while federal departments will utilize a “no-touch approach” for distributing goodies to guests, according to the Office of the First Lady, which did not respond to a request for additional comment.