With planned events, officials across region promote safe practices for Halloween

TRI-COUNTY — From Easter celebrations to July Fourth barbecues, public health officials have long warned that holiday festivities can increase the risks of coronavirus transmission. And as Halloween fast approaches, officials across the tri-county are once again looking for ways to promote safe holiday celebration.

With its costume parties and shared bowls of candy, the risks posed by Halloween this year are obvious — but officials in the region think they’ve found a solution. Rather than punishing families for engaging in typical Halloween festivities, officials in Marfa, Alpine and beyond are instead going the opposite route, organizing events that they say will protect public health while also allowing kids to stockpile treats.

At a virtual Marfa City Council meeting this month, discussions of trick-or-treating safety featured heavily. Councilmember Irma Salgado said “quite a few people” were asking her about guidance and regulations on trick-or-treating in Marfa this year. Councilmember Raul Lara said he was also hearing questions and concerns.

They asked Marfa ISD Superintendent Oscar Aguero, who was on the city’s Zoom call, for recommendations on what Halloween should look like this year. Superintendent Aguero said he was conflicted.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Aguero said, “I’m torn.” On one hand, he thought students and community members in Marfa were being cautious and respecting regulations. On the other hand, he worried about “the unknowns,” from the possibility of more local cases to the difficulties of enforcing social distancing rules on an evening when streets are typically occupied by groups of costumed kids.

Not that those concerns mattered much, though. Teresa Todd, the city attorney for Marfa, outlined the limited legal options available to city officials as they tried to keep residents safe during Halloween.

With a few exceptions, state rules still ban gatherings of more than 10 people, she said — but other than that, there wasn’t much Marfa could do to limit Halloween festivities. “There’s nothing specifically addressing trick-or-treating,” she said.

Todd noted that in Jeff Davis County — where she also serves as county attorney — people in Fort Davis are having a “trunk-or-treat” event, giving away bags of candy from car trunks while maintaining a safe distance. The goal is to minimize contacts without minimizing candy consumption.

As for Marfa, “I think the best way [to keep residents safe] is to have a different event,” Todd added. That way, city leaders could incentivize best practices without dealing with the legal and logistical headaches of trying to tamp down on traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating.

At press time, at least three alternate Halloween events in Marfa were taking shape or had been officially announced. In a post on social media, the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office said it was “calling all boys and ghouls” to “join the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office for Halloween Drive Thru.” That event happens Halloween evening from 5 until 8 p.m. at the sheriff’s office.

At Marfa ISD, the schools’ traditional costume contest and potluck is off for this year — but Aguero, the Marfa ISD superintendent, told city officials he’s also planning a candy handout at the school.

That event, which also runs from 5 until 8 p.m. at Martin Field, will take a “trunk-or-treat” format, where businesses and families can offer candy from the trunks of their cars. Masks and social distancing are required, and anyone interested in offering candy is encouraged to contact Superintendent Aguero at oaguero@marfaisd.com.

“We think it’d just be safer and that we can control things better,” Aguero said in an interview. “We’re trying to discourage [kids and families] from going from house to house.”

And from 4:30 until 7:30 p.m. the Marfa Public Library also plans to have an event. Masks and social distancing will be required, and Nicki Ittner, the programming librarian, stressed it’s “not a hang-out situation” — meaning the library will discourage people from congregating outside.

The library will have pick-up treat bags and costume photos for children. If families prefer to stay in their car, they can just drive up, Ittner said.

Ittner will post photos of kids’ costumes on their social media, and there will also be a costume contest, she said. At press time, she was still figuring out categories for the contest — but she stressed there will be prizes.

Marfa’s approach mirrors that of other communities in the region, where local officials have decided to offer safe events rather than more rules and regulations. In Alpine, city leaders are promoting a “Halloween trail and treat” at Kokernot Park from 3 until 6 p.m. on Halloween evening.

Like in Marfa, city leaders in Alpine decided the best approach would be to organize safe alternatives, said Erik Zimmer, the city manager. “We’re trying to be thoughtful in the approach and incentivize the right behavior,” he said. Masks and social distancing are required at the event, which will feature costume contests, a walking parade trail and drive-thru options for kids to pick up treats.

Likewise in Presidio, where Mayor John Ferguson says city officials are also considering setting up safe alternatives to traditional trick-or-treating. Details for those festivities have not yet been finalized — but at press time on Wednesday, the Presidio officials were getting ready to discuss the topic at a city-council meeting.

Meanwhile, faced with rising coronavirus case counts across the state, the Texas Department of State Health Services on Monday released guidance for best holiday practices. “You don’t have to abandon Halloween and Día de los Muertos activities,” the agency advises, “but you can make them safer.”

The safest holiday activities, the agency says, are those at home. Carve pumpkins or cook a meal with family members, the agency suggests. Or, set up a virtual costume show or ofrenda ceremony.

For Texans who want to get out of the house, the agency encourages outdoor gatherings over indoor ones. Among its suggestions are neighborhood costume parades and scavenger hunts.

Last but not least, the agency also answers a question that’s likely on many parents’ minds this year: A costume mask is “not a substitute for a protective mask,” as it doesn’t “provide the same kind of protection.”

Instead, to stay safe, the agency recommends that costume-wearers either “build a protective mask into [their] costume” or make sure their costume includes “at least two layers of breathable fabric that completely cover the nose and mouth.” And as always, people should wash their hands regularly and stay home if they have any COVID-19 symptoms.