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US: Pumpkin patches and Halloween parties: Experts weigh in on COVID-19 risks at fall gatherings

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Autumn is approaching, which means you and your family might be scheduling trips to pumpkin patches, heading to fall festivals or planning a Halloween party.

But COVID-19 cases are still spreading throughout the country. On Labor Day, daily coronavirus infections were more than four times what the U.S. saw on the holiday last year. Hospitalizations were also up over 150%, although most individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 this year are unvaccinated.

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Regardless of your vaccination status, autumn will bring gatherings large and small to communities across the U.S. Here's what you need to know to keep you and your friends and family safe.

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What are the safest fall events?

The safest events for you and your family this autumn will be ones that are outdoors where social distancing is possible.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many individuals don’t need to wear a mask in outdoor settings. But people who are immunocompromised or have certain conditions may want to continue taking precautions recommended for unvaccinated people.

Experts told USA TODAY that activities such as visiting a pumpkin patch, going apple picking and other outdoor events generally pose a lower risk for you and your family.

“I'm not going to worry too much at an event like that, especially if we can keep our distance from those around us,” Elizabeth Stuart, vice dean for education in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told USA TODAY.

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“At an event like that, I would always have a mask right at hand if we start being in closer proximity to others, maybe getting on a hayride or something. Then I think we would put masks on,” she said.

The risk of COVID-19 spreading increases at events like fall festivals, where you might be in a crowd outdoors. However, Dr. Joseph Khabbaza, a pulmonary and critical care physician at the Cleveland Clinic, explained that individuals should be aware of their local infection rates when going to a more crowded outdoor event.

“Especially if you're drinking and socializing, things like that, you have to really feel out each event while you're there,” he said. “My general advice for a lot of events is that, if you show up and it feels less safe than you expected, to just leave.”

“Try to find a patch or area where it's just you and your friends,” he added.

According to the CDC, vaccinated individuals in an area with high COVID-19 transmission may want to wear masks in crowded outdoor areas.

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What are the riskiest fall events?

The risk of COVID-19 spreading increases at indoor events where individuals are not wearing masks or taking other precautions.

But that doesn’t mean you and your friends can’t attend a Halloween party or other gatherings this fall. Stuart told USA TODAY that she would consider "what people might know about the people who will be at the party and the general COVID risk in the area at the time."

“If rates are magically really low, and the party attendees are vaccinated, I’m going to be much less concerned and worried,” she said.

According to the CDC, several factors might increase the risks for COVID-19 spreading at a Halloween party or other gathering, including if the location has poor ventilation or if the broader area has high or increasing levels of COVID-19 cases.

As college students return to campuses across the country, Khabbaza pointed out that some colleges and universities have required students get vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested for the virus regularly, which will make parties and other gatherings safer on campus.

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“If you're in a vaccinated campus, you know, odds are most people there are vaccinated, the risks become quite low because you're kind of protected by that local herd immunity,” he said. “But outside of that, the risks become quite high for a person without immunity getting very sick from COVID, especially if the local rates are high.”

My child is too young to get vaccinated. Should I take them trick-or-treating?

Stuart pointed to trick-or-treating as an opportunity for families to participate in a classic fall activity while still staying safe.

“I am pro-trick-or-treating,” she said. "Trick-or-treating is the kind of activity that we should be looking for in the sense that it is pretty safe, really."

“It’s a way to connect with neighbors, connect with others, in an environment where everyone is outside,” she added.

Experts told USA TODAY that parents with children who are too young to be vaccinated may want to avoid going to larger gatherings in general where people may not be wearing masks or distancing.

Khabbaza recommended "smaller settings, where the parents know that other parents are vaccinated.”

“Try to keep it to a smaller Halloween gathering if you're going to be doing an event with small kids,” he said, noting that parents and children alike can “find a fun costume that incorporates a mask” to stay safe.

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I’m vaccinated. Do I still need to take precautions at events?

If you’re fully vaccinated, the CDC still recommends that individuals wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high COVID-19 transmission.

Health officials recommend that all people who are eligible should get vaccinated against COVID-19.

According to Stuart, there are “core mitigation strategies” that everyone can take as they plan to attend or host events this fall, such as trying to be outdoors when possible, especially when children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated are in attendance.

“It’s really important to remember that it's sort of the whole community's job to help keep these kids safe,” Stuart said. “One of the challenges is that families, especially recently, have sort of felt like it's all on them to keep their kids safe and that communities haven't really rallied to do the things that are required.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pumpkin patches and Halloween parties: Experts weigh in on COVID-19 risks at fall gatherings

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