The answer is: not as safe as we want to believe.
Today's news about the cancellation of the Reign of Terror Haunted House in Thousand Oaks is sad - but not necessarily bad. In fact, it might even minimize risk of Covid-19 community spread. Although we have no doubt that the Reign of Terror team did everything humanly possible to insure the safety of their would-be guests, there is no absolute guarantee that it would have been enough.
As a nation, the people of the United States have not defeated the Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to amass a staggering death toll. To some extent, lockdowns, social distancing, and mask-wearing have mitigated the damage, but this has led to a false sense of security, which could lead to further outbreaks.
Plans for reopening the country - and for creating safe Halloween walk-through attractions - have been based on the theory that the novel coronavirus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets, which can be partially blocked by masks and which gravity quickly drags to earth before they travel more than six feet. However, research over the past several months has coalesced around the theory that Covid-19 also spreads by aerosols, which remain suspended in the atmosphere much longer, especially in areas with no ventilation, and potentially spread much further.
This means that inhaling air inside an enclosed space - such as a movie theatre or a Halloween maze - is not necessarily safe even if you are wearing a mask, even if you are maintaining social distance, and even if other occupants have already exited the building. Unless there is an open window or some other source of fresh-air circulation, Covid-19 can linger in the atmosphere for minutes or hours, potentially being inhaled by anyone not wearing an N-95 mask.
Don't take my word for it. Here is a summary from the New Jersey government's website, with links to sources:
Under experimental conditions, researchers found that the COVID-19 virus stayed viable in the air for three hours. The researchers estimate that in most real-world situations, the virus would remain suspended in the air for about 30 minutes, before settling onto surfaces. This is similar to what was found for SARS and MERS, which some researchers consider likely to be spread via airborne transmission. One study estimates that a person infected with the COVID-19 virus who speaks loudly for one minute produces at least 1,000 virus-containing droplets that remain airborne for more than 8 minutes.
What this means is that our current precautions - standing six feet apart, washing hands, and cleaning surfaces - are not enough to totally prevent disease transmission. Outdoor Halloween events and drive-through haunts should be safe, but we should all be wary of walk-through haunted houses or escape rooms this year. Unless there is a half-hour down time between performances, or some kind of ventilation system that completely replaces air in a few minutes, risk of infection remains.
So far, the X-Factor in all this is viral load: How many aerosolized Covid-19 particles does one have to inhale before becoming infected? Minimizing time inside public spaces is a good way to avoid dangerous levels of exposure, and one five-minute walk inside a short haunted house is probably not a serious health risk. However, lengthier events can be problematic, and visiting multiple indoor events will increase exposure time. Even if this amount of exposure does not lead to a life-threatening infection, one could become an asymptomatic carrier, spreading the virus to less healthy friends and family.
We're not trying to be Chicken Little, and we're not advising haunt-seekers to remain cooped up all October. Rather, we don't want our love of the season to blind us or our readers to the very real danger that still exists. We don't need Halloween in Los Angeles to become another Sturgis Festival super-spreader event.
Stay safe. Stay well. Stick around to enjoy the many Halloweens the future has in store for us.
Note: This article preceded our "Halloween in the Time of Coronavirus" series, but we have retroactively incorporated it because of its relevance to the topic.
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