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Uncertain whether Halloween, trick-or-treating will be allowed in San Diego County this year

San Diego County's public health officer noted the need to find joy during the stress of a pandemic, but what will guidelines look like?

SAN DIEGO — If you think you love Halloween, wait until you meet Lydia Vargo. Vargo and her family’s Carlsbad home is hard to miss each October.

“We go above and beyond and are known for it,” said Vargo. “It’s something that has an emotional pull.”

It’s decorated to the nines with Halloween decorations, with neighborhood trick-or-treaters going all out for the family’s treasured holiday. 

“Growing up in Canada, Halloween, I mean - you started counting down in August,” said Vargo. “You were so excited for October 31.”

Credit: Lydia Vargo

Vargo and her husband have a 10-year-old and 11-year-old daughter. However, her husband didn’t grow up with the same Halloween rite of passage. 

“On the flipside of that, my husband in Australia never had a Halloween,” said Vargo.  So, when we were able to bring our daughters to the U.S., he got really excited to experience that with them, so it’s a big deal for our family.” 

Starting in September, Vargo collaborates with neighbors for a themed Halloween. Her house is the “Skeleton Saloon.” 

“We actually sit outside in the evenings and talk to people who walk through our neighborhood and just ask us about the decorations,” said Vargo. “We get to know our community.”

And on October 31?

“That’s a-whole-nother story,” said Vargo. “[We’re] talking to the kids who come up in their full costumes and handing out candy and watching their faces light up. Really, it’s a magical time.”   

However, will trick-or-treating be allowed in San Diego County this year? Thanks to COVID-19, the answer remains unclear.

Californians have questions about Halloween next month after the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health banned trick-or-treating, along with Halloween parties, carnivals and haunted houses. This means Halloween with join other holidays - like Memorial Day, Passover, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day - as a Zoom celebration. 

However, on Wednesday, Los Angeles County changed its stance overnight on trick-or-treating. Rather than an out-right ban, trick-or-treating is now considered "not recommended." 

"Door to door trick or treating is not recommended because it can be very difficult to maintain proper social distancing on porches and at front doors, ensure that everyone answering or coming to the door is appropriately masked to prevent disease spread, and because sharing food is risky," the newly-revised guidance read in part.

LA County stood its ground on banning events and gatherings.

“Someone once said to me earlier this year ‘I feel like the word crazy is going to be a replacement [for] the word 2020. You know, I had such a 2020 day.' It’s just nuts,” said Vargo.  “I think it’s sad. I think there’s going to be a lot of heartbroken kids who - it’s a magical time.”  

The LA County Department of Public Health stated that such activities pose too much of a risk for spreading COVID-19, which has parents talking.

"Since some of the traditional ways in which this holiday is celebrated [do] not allow you to minimize contact with non-household members, it is important to plan early and identify safer alternatives," according to guidance posted on the agency's website.

LA BAN: Los Angeles County bans trick-or-treating for Halloween 2020

Halloween was a small topic of discussion at Wednesday's San Diego County COVID-19 briefing, which you can watch here.

“During the cloud of the pandemic, we have to get joy where we can,” said Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego County’s public health officer. 

Wooten said San Diego County is awaiting CDC guidelines on Halloween festivities. Once those are available, Wooten said the county will develop a protocol hopefully by the end of September. She suggested drive-thru Halloween events may be a safe solution for children to show off their Halloween costumes.

Although San Diego County hasn’t released Halloween 2020 guidance yet, Vargo and her family have started brainstorming possible ways to reduce the risk of transmission on Halloween. These ideas include individually-wrapped candy, smaller trick-or-treating groups that keep their distance, starting celebrations earlier in the evening to avoid crowds, wearing face coverings and offering hand sanitizer at the door.  

“I mean, at the end of the day, we do want everyone safe,” said Vargo. “The ability to wear masks is super easy on Halloween. I think that that could be an easy one to incorporate.”

Los Angeles County did offer some alternatives that parents in San Diego County may opt for if other California counties follow LA’s lead. According to the county, online parties or contests, such as pumpkin- carving or costume contests, are allowed, as are car parades and drive-thru attractions. Drive-thru events can also include distribution of "treat bags," but they are limited to "commercially packaged non-perishable treats," and recipients must remain in their vehicles. Drive-in movie nights are also acceptable, along with "Halloween- themed meals at outdoor restaurants," art installations and decorations of homes and yards.

People taking part in any such events must wear face coverings, practice social distancing and adhere to other health requirements, such as frequent hand-washing and avoiding confined spaces.

“If we can keep some normalcy, especially for our children when they’re doing like distance learning and there have been so many changes, but in a safe way, then I am all for it,” said Vargo. “There’s been a lot that’s been taken away this year from our children and expressing themselves and dressing up and indulging - all those things are really important in childhood.”  

Dr. Sabrina Perrino, a Mira Mesa native and pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente, echoed that sentiment. Other than being a doctor, Perrino also empathizes with parents since she has a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old.

“There are people right now - they’re fighting for their lives right now,” said Perrino. “So, for the rest of us, if we’re feeling healthy, what can we do to still have fun safely? We can get all dressed up in our costumes, eat candy, and then walk around the neighborhoods and look at everyone’s decorations.”

“I think a lot of it depends on age groups,” added Perrino. “For the little ones, we can put them in a wagon and just give them snacks and walk around.”

However, the UC San Diego graduate admits Halloween and traditional trick-or-treating may be a bigger deal for older children. That’s why Perrino suggested setting up an outdoor pod for each family to interact with others while still maintaining six feet of social distance.

“Since they’re so excited about being dressed up, I think that’s really what it’s about,” said Perrino. “You’re trying to create community. I think there’s a way to do it.” 

Perrino said with friends and family with other households, come up with a safety game plan ahead of time to see each other without getting too close. 

“I think kids personally just want to eat candy so if I just buy my own bag and let them eat it,” said Perrino. 

As of Sept. 9, San Diego County has reported 41,324 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 721 deaths. While the county was the first in Southern California to be removed from the state's monitoring list and move up to the "red tier" in terms of spread, the county is inching back to the "purple tier" due to an uptick in cases.

While the inconsistent nature of COVID-19 countywide has taken a toll of people of all ages, Perrino finds comfort in the resilience of children. 

“Once this is all over, the kids are going to be fine,” said Perrino. “The kids are going to be so happy to play together again and it’s going to be great, so I really just spend a lot of time imagining what life’s going to be like once this is done.”

So, will it be safe to fly or travel for Thanksgiving this year? Here's what another San Diego doctor had to say: 

HOLIDAYS DURING THE PANDEMIC: Will it be safe to fly and visit family this Thanksgiving? A San Diego doctor weighs in

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