“OK ready? One, two, three, go!”
Jenny Wilson is helping her 7-year-old twins, Addison and Eliana, slingshot pumpkins into a barrel at the Bi-Zi Farms pumpkin patch in Brush Prairie, Washington. “Oh, so close! Mom, can we do another one?”
It’s a weekday, and about 200 people are expected to visit the patch, but Wilson isn’t concerned that her family could be exposed to the virus.
“We knew we’d be outside and this is a tradition and we didn’t want to miss out," she said. "So we weren’t so worried.”
She’s taking the same approach to Halloween: “Normally we do trick-or-treating. We might still do something as a family or see what neighbors are comfortable with, letting kids come and get candy. So we’re going to play it by ear.”
She hasn’t thought about whether they’ll wear masks or not.
"Probably no masks until we walk up to someone’s house and then we’ll put on a mask and take it off. Since we’ll just be with friends and family.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising people not to trick-or-treat the traditional way this year, because of COVID. But many Pacific Northwesterners want to mark the season somehow.
Intel engineer Jeremy Hauss visited the farm’s petting zoo with his wife and teenage daughters. He’s wary of COVID but said the farm isn’t crowded and people are wearing masks.
“We liked that this particular pumpkin patch, you had to purchase your ticket ahead of time online with a time slot, so you had a maximum number per time slot," he said.
Hauss said people are getting tired of staying at home, and it’s important to make things feel as normal as possible. He said they plan to celebrate Halloween this year, but with a few precautions.
“I figure we’ll still hand out the candy, we’ll have to put on gloves and just wear masks and make it normal, but still safe," he said.
Only 25% of Americans with children are planning to trick-or-treat this year, according to marketing company What If Media Group. “Good news for dentists, a little bit spooky for kids,” said chief marketing officer Jordan Cohen.
His company surveyed 16,000 people about trick-or-treating — information that’s valuable for stores that sell candy — and found support for Halloween in Oregon is the third-highest in the nation.
“I don’t know what it is about Oregon. I’m not from Oregon. But what we’re seeing is that Oregon is a more Halloween-friendly state than [most in the] the nation,” he said.
Pumpkin patch owner Bill Zimmerman said his Halloween preparations started in February, before the pandemic took hold in the United States. It was a $40,000 gamble to plant in May, given the cost of the seeds, the fertilizer, spraying and hoeing, but he thought the pandemic might be over by September.
Then came Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start Initiative."
“Scared the bejesus out of us, because he pretty well just shut everything down,” said Zimmerman. "You know, no hayrides, not even viewing animals and stuff.”
But the Washington Farm Bureau contacted Inslee and worked out a compromise.
“He did relent and set down what you could really say are some pretty reasonable guidelines,” said Zimmerman.
Those guidelines include things like cleaning the wheelbarrows that people use to cart pumpkins around and sanitizing tables at the concession stand.
“We can’t have any activities inside a closed building," said Zimmerman. "For that reason, we had to do away with the hippity-hop races, and the corn bin and the calf-roping competition and that kind of stuff. But we could operate in a barn or a building with less than two walls.”
That’s because air can waft through and sweep away the virus. But one of the biggest disappointments this year has been for Jasper the donkey.
“He has a habit with young girls, if they turn around with their back to the fence ... he will come and he will lay his head over their shoulder ... and they can just pet his face," Zimmerman said. “I have seen him stand there for hours.”
But this year visitors aren’t allowed to pet the animals. “So poor Jasper is just wondering what has he done wrong,” he said. "He’s really dejected.”
Zimmerman estimates that online booking and social distancing cut his entrance numbers by half. But since everyone is staying home now, roadside market sales are picking up the slack.
“We have done well with our sales of other crops, sweet corn, tomatoes," he said. "So even if we’re down some, we hope to be in good shape financially to make it through the winter.”
The CDC has issued guidance on low and high-risk Halloween activities.
High risk includes traditional trick-or-treating and costume parties. Low-risk events are things like decorating your home, holding virtual costume contests and carving pumpkins with members of your household.
Some bright sparks have come up with workarounds, such as the man in Texas who built a cannon to fire candy from a socially distant six feet away.