Beneath a canopy of trees in the grounds of an old convent would be an ideal place to host a spooky screening of the Blair Witch Project any Halloween, but it’s especially fitting this year. Being outdoors means that even vulnerable members of the community who are worried about Covid can feel safe enough to join in.
The showing has been organised by a group of residents in south Belfast’s Ormeau neighbourhood who are aiming to bring together members of the community who have been especially isolated during the pandemic for their first Halloween film festival, called ParanOrmeau Activity.
“We’re using large venues and outdoor spaces so people can feel comfortable about going to a screening,” said Neil Wilson, one of the organisers. “Cinema is something that unites everybody. These initiatives are ways for people to meet up.”
Celebrating being together again after a long pandemic was a major theme in responses from Guardian readers to a callout asking how people planned to spend their Halloween, although experts warn that they should follow ParanOrmeau Activity’s lead and take precautions.
Jean Silva, 27, from London, said he was deciding between travelling to Derry in Northern Ireland for its renowned celebrations or going to a Halloween ball in London. Either way, he said, “one thing is for certain: we’re going to party hard.”
Darren Rhodes, 49, from Manchester, is planning to bring together family and friends who joined him during lockdowns for weekly online sessions of an iPad game. “I’m hosting our first in-person Quingo session, where some people will get to meet others for the first time,” he said. “The theme is, of course, Halloween, and I know people will make an effort to get dressed up.”
But public health experts are warning that the pandemic is not over yet and precautions should still be taken, especially where vulnerable people are concerned.
“Most restrictions have gone now so it’s quite different this year to compared to last year, but infection numbers are still quite high – around 40,000 new cases per day – so there’s a risk that if infections increase that hospital admissions and deaths may go up again over next few months,” said Azeem Majid, a professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College London.
He said although trick-or-treating outdoors was low-risk compared to the exposure to infection that children receive at school, they should respect others by only going to houses that have been agreed in advance, and keeping a safe distance from the people who answer a door.
Simon Williams, a behavioural scientist at Swansea University, recommends that trick-or-treaters look out for signals that households are open to visitors, such as lit pumpkins or decorations, and heed notes asking to be left alone. “Some people are still shielding so I think it’s more important than ever to be respectful of the fact that many people don’t want to participate.”
One reader from Sheffield, who asked to remain anonymous, said she normally went “full throttle” for Halloween and had hoped she might be able to reprise the tradition this year. “But no. It just feels wrong and unsafe, going to strangers’ houses and emerging with sweets that others have touched,” she said.
Several readers noted that their local residents’ associations were mapping trails with spooky displays and sweets at the end to provide a Covid-safe alternative to traditional doorstep trick-or-treating.
Williams also suggests going trick-or-treating in smaller groups, and says households could offer individual treats rather than a big box for children to root around in, which could spread germs.
But he says people should see this Halloween as “normal-ish”. “It’s been an extraordinary year and a half. I think it’s important for people’s wellbeing to acknowledge this.”
According to Majid, the main infection risk is from adults mixing at large indoor parties. All revellers should ensure they are fully vaccinated and that they take lateral flow tests before and after. He recommends that older people or those with complex medical conditions avoid mixing with other households indoors.
For those planning parties, Williams recommends following government advice and ventilating the space with open windows and doors, or hosting outdoors. He adds that it’s worth remembering the basics: continue using hand sanitiser, and consider wearing a surgical mask underneath a Halloween mask.
One reader noted that many people would be planning costumes inspired by Netflix’s hit drama Squid Game, with a black face covering with a geometric shape printed on top, making that mask guidance easier to follow.