“A lot of possibilities”: UMD students modify Halloween celebrations as COVID-19 spreads

A student rides a Shuttle-UM bus on Halloween 2019. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

Any other year, Sarah Brady would spend the days leading up to Halloween watching scary movies to gear themselves up for a night out partying. 

But this year, COVID-19 restrictions have foiled their party plans. Instead, they’ll be getting into costume and watching scary movies with their roommates.

“It just kind of sucks,” said Brady, a sophomore public policy major at the University of Maryland. “It’s gonna be a little lame, but we’re going to do everything within our power to make it a fun night.” 

As students prepare for Halloween this year, many have come up with new ways to celebrate during the pandemic — but some are still worried cases will rise after the inevitable holiday partying and bar activity. 

While Brady said they think most students will follow proper safety protocols and avoid large groups, they’re sure there will be at least a few heavily-attended Halloween parties. 

“It’s pretty easy to see: Nationwide, cases are not slowing down in the slightest and I just — I do not think that this is going to help at all,” Brady said. 

National coronavirus case numbers have steadily risen during October, hitting record highs this week — more than 89,000 new infections were recorded on Thursday, according to The Washington Post.

[Prince George’s County will remain in Phase Two due to rising COVID-19 cases]

Halloween isn’t the first holiday students have encountered this semester. The university saw an uptick in self-reported positive cases in the week following Labor Day, though it’s unclear whether the jump was due to activity over the long weekend. Several states also saw higher case counts in the weeks following Labor Day. 

Though positivity rates from university-administered tests remained well below the national average last week, junior public health science major Grace Sharkey is worried cases will rise in the community if some pandemic-fatigued students choose to party. That’s why she’s encouraging people to get tested after Halloween weekend, especially because many plan to go home to see family for Thanksgiving. 

And students aren’t the only ones with concerns. On Thursday, Patty Perillo, student affairs vice president, sent a campuswide email cautioning students against gathering for Halloween and Homecoming, which also takes place this week, reminding them failure to comply with pandemic regulations may result in sanctions from the Office of Student Conduct.

These concerns are far from unfounded, said Jacob Bueno de Mesquita, a postdoctoral researcher working on the university’s ongoing StopCOVID study, which is analyzing how the virus is transmitted through the air and how effective masks are at blocking that transmission. 

There’s plenty of risk associated with bar-going and partying, Bueno de Mesquita said. Indoor environments are rarely well-ventilated, and people take their masks off to eat and drink at bars. Plus, the loud singing and talking that often comes with tipsy college students can increase viral output by about ten times, he said. 

“If I were to dream up a safe Halloween party environment, it would be a giant rave in McKeldin Mall, with everyone wearing their face masks,” Bueno de Mesquita said. “A silent disco would be really good. Everyone could just get their headphones in!” 

Bueno de Mesquita encourages students not to attend packed social gatherings this Halloween. But if people do choose to party, he said, there are some measures they can take to reduce their risk of exposure to the virus. 

Wearing a mask, speaking softly, standing away from others and wearing protective eyewear can help protect people from both larger viral droplets and smaller, more insidious aerosol particles. 

But the safest thing to do is avoid crowded environments, Bueno de Mesquita said. That’s why he’s asking students to find creative ways to celebrate the holiday without risking infection — and many are. 

[Little Bus of Horrors: Halloween 2019 at UMD

For Sen DeSha, a junior architecture major, Halloween is all about the “trick” in “trick-or-treat.” She normally goes home on Halloween to get dressed up with her friends and roam the local streets, keeping trick-or-treaters safe while giving them a little fright. 

And she’s not going to let the pandemic stop her.

“There is actually a lot of possibilities for Halloween now,” DeSha said. “People just need to have a little bit of fun and relax.”

DeSha said she’s planning on putting out a bowl of candy and sitting behind it to give kids the chance to be tricked — and treated — the way they would be any other year. 

Meanwhile, Sharkey, president of the Delta Gamma sorority chapter at this university, is planning an in-house Halloween party this year. Members who live in the sorority’s house can dress up and partake in activities like pumpkin carving — but anyone who leaves won’t be allowed back in to ensure everyone’s safety, Sharkey said. 

Many of Sharkey’s best friends live in the house with her, she said — so she’ll be spending Halloween with the people she’s closest with.

“We’re trying to make it as normal as possible,” Sharkey said, “[It’s] definitely hard to do this year, but we’re making it work.” 

And though Brady’s reality may not be the revelry they’d otherwise partake in, they’re excited to spend some quality time with their roommates. 

“As much fun as partying is … there is joy in just kind of enjoying the people you have with you,” Brady said. “It’s the little things.”

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