What are the rules for this Halloween?

by Nicholas Goldberg

I live on one of those Los Angeles streets where kids and their families come from all around the city to trick or treat. On a typical Halloween, we buy a couple hundred dollars’ worth of candy and we have a nonstop line in front of our door from 6 p.m. until 9.

We sit outside, which feels like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Sometimes the crowds are so thick that we become like assembly line workers, rotely and mechanically dispensing the contents of bag after bag to whoever appears in front of us: witches, Spider-Men, ersatz Donald Trumps, bloody corpses with knives stuck through their heads, little Snow Whites.

But this year, I don’t know what to do.

Is there going to be a massive Halloween turnout or will people stay home?

If they come, should we be there for them or turn our lights out and hide guiltily inside? Will our neighbors be giving out candy or abstaining?

On the one hand, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, announced that it was fine to go trick-or-treating this year. “Go out there and enjoy Halloween,” he said.

On the other hand, Dr. Fauci has never been to my street, where this year’s guidance seems impossible for us to follow. Maintain social distance, say the experts. Avoid “clustering too closely.” Line up individual packages for the kids, rather than having them all stick their hands into one big candy-filled bowl. Attend “small gatherings.”

That’s just not likely in my neighborhood.

My point, though, is not really about Halloween, but about the moment we’re living through. One of the things I find most disconcerting about this stage of the 19-month-old pandemic is that the rules no longer seem clear. In 2020 we were much more locked down, a lot less free to do as we pleased — but at least we knew what was being asked of us in the name of health and safety, and how to comply.

Last year, for the most part, we stayed home. We socialized only within our bubbles. We wore masks if we absolutely needed to be around other people indoors. We maintained a six-foot social distance whenever possible.

There was no vaccine, so we didn’t mess around.

And when Halloween came, my wife and I didn’t buy candy or throw open our doors — but it didn’t matter because no one showed up. Angelenos got the crystal-clear message: Don’t even try it.

It was lonely last year, for sure, and I’m glad it’s over. But I do feel confused by the murky ambiguity of what’s happened since.

Today, it’s not entirely clear, at least to me, what’s safe and what’s not safe. Different cities have different rules; politicians contradict one another; Republicans and Democrats send inconsistent messages. Schools are operating under different guidelines. Some communities have mandates; others actually ban mandates.

As for individuals, everyone seems to think that his or her own approach to pandemic safety is the right one, and that everyone else is either wildly careless or needlessly fearful.

I’m vaxxed. Two Pfizer shots, no booster. Last shot administered six months ago. I’m 62 years old. So can I eat inside with other people? With my mask off? At a crowded restaurant? Some of my friends do; others don’t.

Should I worry if the guy next to me on the plane isn’t wearing a mask? I did worry when it happened to me — but when I wrote about it, lots of people insisted that I was hysterically overreacting.

I feel protected by my own vaccination, but only up to a point. In Los Angeles County alone, 63,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus despite being fully vaccinated, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health. That’s a fraction of the total number of cases (unvaccinated people are nearly seven times more likely to become infected and 23 times more likely to be hospitalized), but it’s enough to keep me on guard.

Maybe I should relax and enjoy Halloween, Fauci-style, since I’m immunized. But my gut tells me that vax or no vax, it’s wrong to make face-to-face contact from a foot apart with 500 or 1,000 children in a single evening — most of them unvaccinated because they’re under 12. It’s not just wrong for me; it’s wrong for them too.

Frankenstein masks and Incredible Hulk masks won’t protect any of us.

At the end of the day, I guess the only real rule is this: Figure it out for yourself. Don’t do anything foolish, take only calculated risks and protect yourself as best you can while allowing yourself a bit of leniency.

But on Halloween I either have to open the doors or keep them shut. And I’m not sure yet which it’ll be.

Nicholas Goldberg is an associate editor and op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.