As Hollywood Gothique looks over a landscape in which haunted attractions, cinema, theatre, and other events have been shut down by Covid-19, we find ourselves wondering whether there is much chance for Halloween 2020 to take place this fall in anything approaching the season's usual form. In an era of social distancing, when close proximity equates with risk of infection, what chance is there of safely presenting a walk-through Halloween haunt whose biggest scare factor is not viral respiratory particles?
At this time, there are too many questions to know anything for sure. Even as the country reopens, there could be a second wave of infections that sends us back into lockdown, and Fall, the traditional flu season, could be especially ripe for a coronavirus comeback. However, assuming haunted attractions are allowed to open this October, is it theoretically possible to make them safe?
Any haunters considering this possibility should read "The Risks - Know Them - Avoid Them" by Erin Bromage. a biology professor, who drills down into the math regarding risk of infection. In a nutshell, the formula is:
Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time.
In other words, what matters is not just how much virus is in the air; equally important is how long one is exposed. Therefore, by keeping exposure time down, it is at least possible to fashion a venue that would be safe for customers, who spend only a few minutes inside. Safety for the actors, working haunts hours at a time, would be more difficult.
Bromage does not address any situation directly analogous to a Halloween haunted house, but we can draw some parallels to her assessment of malls and stores:
"When assessing the risk of infection (via respiration) at the grocery store or mall, you need to consider the volume of the air space (very large), the number of people (restricted), how long people are spending in the store (workers - all day; customers - an hour). Taken together, for a person shopping: the low density, high air volume of the store, along with the restricted time you spend in the store, means that the opportunity to receive an infectious dose is low. But, for the store worker, the extended time they spend in the store provides a greater opportunity to receive the infectious dose and therefore the job becomes more risky."
Bromage gives estimates not only of exposure time but also of the time it would take for an infected person to spread enough respiratory particles to be dangerous. With facial coverings to smother coughs and sneezes, it could take up to 50 minutes for a single person to exhale enough tainted breath to infest a small room. If we are reading the article correctly, this means it might be possible to make an indoor haunt safe for everyone by keeping it well ventilated - that is, drawing air from outside rather than recycling indoor air.
Other useful tips would be having customers enter one or two at a time and staying in each room only a minute or two. Actors could be kept safe if they were somehow isolated - perhaps locked in plexiglass "cells" like specimens on display. There are also issues related to line management: packing people into an indoor waiting room would probably be a very bad idea.
On the other hand, outdoor situations such as scare zones could be relatively risk-free:
"In these situations there is not enough time to achieve the infectious viral load when you are standing 6 feet apart or where wind and the infinite outdoor space for viral dilution reduces viral load.[...] If I am outside, and I walk past someone, remember it is 'dose and time' needed for infection. You would have to be in their airstream for 5+ minutes for a chance of infection").
Much of the article is based on estimates that need to be confirmed by research - such as exactly how big a viral load is necessary to cause infection (Bromage bases her estimates on flu statistics) - and none of it is specific to haunted houses with narrow walkways and claustrophobic spaces. Nevertheless, the information does point toward a possible solution worth considering.