Jen Gerson: Don't cancel trick or treating

Now is the time to transition to a strategy of rational risk mitigation — not hysterical pandemic safety theatre.

Hundreds of years and five months ago, you may recall a scandal of national import — or, rather, several scandals that rocked the very consciences of Canadians.

Many young people gathered to enjoy the sun at Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto; likewise, Vancouver residents took to the beach as winter inevitably lost its battle to the spring.

These crowds — which always appeared to be denser than they likely were thanks to the flattening trickery of telephoto lenses — were the subject of front-page photographs and shaming hashtags like #COVIDiots.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's a little easier to characterize these spasms of righteous outrage as misguided. We now know that COVID-19 is largely spread through face-to-face contact, especially in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. The highest risk appears to be concentrated in intimate family gatherings, close-quarter work environments, and events in which potentially infected individuals might speak, sing, or scream loudly in close proximity to other individuals.

There is no such thing as no risk where any infectious disease is concerned, but if we were to craft a low-risk social activity in the Time of COVID-19, it would look a lot like this: young people loosely gathered outdoors in a park on a sunny day. Ideally, those park-goers would wear masks, but you'll recall that the public health authorities were still iffy on their use for the general population back in March.

Of course, we didn't know all of this at that time. Some post-hoc slack is warranted for the people who thought they were engaging in an immense public good by hashtag-shaming teenagers playing ping pong on rooftops last spring.

But that was five months ago. Thanks to the tireless efforts of scientists and researchers worldwide, we understand more about the virus now than we did then. And as autumn turns to winter, we return indoors and face the prospect of a second wave, I find my capacity for panic to be utterly spent. Caution, outrage and fear can be effective tools to manage public behaviour — but only for a time.

We understand that this pandemic is going to be a feature of our lives for the foreseeable future: now is the time to transition to a strategy of rational risk mitigation — not hysterical pandemic safety theatre.

To that end, I want to talk about Halloween.

Look, I can empathize with the impulse to do something, DO ANYTHING, to stem the concerning growth of COVID-19 cases. But if you were to craft a low-risk family holiday that offered a psychologically necessary reprieve from the joyless grind of the last year, you couldn't do much better than trick-or-treating.

It's children (low risk), outdoors (low risk), in masks (low risk), engaging in the briefest possible social interactions (medium risk). Yet Canadians have received mixed advice about the tradition; some jurisdictions have cautioned parents to skip it. Gatineau has, reasonably, restricted Halloween parties, but permitted trick-or-treating with restrictions.

I've asked several doctors — The Line's personal panel of COVID-19 experts — to weigh in on Halloween. Their responses on trick-or-treating prohibitions ranged from: "(this is ) extraordinarily dumb" and "I would write something about it but I wouldn't be able to express myself without extreme profanity." To "pretty safe" and "shouldn't be cancelled" as long as reasonable precautions are enacted — like masking, distancing, and perhaps re-thinking trick-or-treating in apartment buildings. Leaving a bowl filled with candy on the porch, rather than opening the door for every little germy ghoul, is also a reasonable precaution.

One person expressed concern that trick-or-treating would inevitably lead to adult schmoozing — but this does not bear a resemblance to any version of this tradition that I have ever experienced. The purpose of trick-or-treating is to maximize the efficient collection of candy; any adult who dawdled or took a drink at a neighbour's house would find himself deeply at odds with his screaming and fitful progeny. But then, I was somebody’s particularly terrible progeny.

Then there's this piece of advice from Oregon, noted in the video above, in which a beclowned public health official advised against "trick or treat events because of the high risk of people crowding and people congregating in areas close together."

If your memory has not yet blanked this absurdity out, it's vaguely similar to the logic of Ottawa public health officials who last April advised against chatting over the fence with a neighbour because: "It kind of starts with that and then a couple more people add on and before you know it you have a parking lot party or a backyard party."

(Ottawa walked that recommendation back shortly afterward.)

At this point, everyone should have a good grasp on common sense measures to reduce the risk of catching COVID-19. Indoor Halloween parties are needlessly high risk. But masked trick-or-treating in household cohorts is a low-risk activity, provided kids avoid crowding at doorways.

It is uniformly unhelpful for public health authorities to ban relatively safe activities out of a hypothetical fear that these activities might culminate in orgies. Our public-health authorities understand how to communicate concepts like risk mitigation when it comes to innate human behaviours like sex; yet somehow they've proven to be terrible at communicating clear, consistent, and rational instructions about COVID-19.

As with sex, the safest option is never to have it. But that's no way to live.

Case counts are beginning to tick upward once again; there is news that France may be heading toward another round of lockdowns. This is all very grim, and I can empathize with the doom scrollers eager to seek solace and control by pinning the blame on Covidiots and conspiracy theorists and protesters and whatever brand of partisan government they happen to loathe.

But every Western nation and densely populated city is facing the same spike, and there is some good news at hand; death tolls appear to be relatively stable, our ICUs have not been overwhelmed, and there is evidence to suggest that masking and social distancing are helping. At least, that’s the situation so far. All of this suggests that we may be able to continue with a modified version of normal life as our understanding of the virus and how to treat it continue to improve.

As it always has, normal life requires that we apply common sense to manage the risk of living. So breathe deeply. Put on a ghost costume. Wear a mask. And take your kids trick or treating.

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