How to Stay Safe During Fall Festivities, According to a Medical Expert

The sweet scent of pumpkin spice and pinecones is just around the corner, and that means one thing: fall festivities. The weather is brisk, the gold and orange-plated scenery is out of a storybook, and everything screams comfort. Pumpkin patches will soon be open to the public and it is the perfect time to relocate that oversized flannel to the front of your closet. 

I expect that my biggest fall challenge will be balancing the ratio of mask-wearing to pumpkin spice latte-drinking, in order to ensure optimal safety. But what will happen to apple picking, an activity that attracts crowds upon crowds of people? What are the implications of the seasonal flu tied in with COVID-19? Should Americans open their doors to trick-or-treaters?

It’s a spooky season, to say the least. So I spoke with Sachin Nagrani, MD, MBA, Medical Director at Heal, to get his insight on how to navigate the best things about fall during the pandemic. 

Is it safe to go apple picking and visit pumpkin patches? 

Photo by Natalie Grainger on Unsplash

The anticipation to capture an aesthetically-pleasing Instagram photo at the pumpkin patch this fall season is real. As Gen Z, we need that shot of perfectly lined up pumpkins, sugar-coated apple cider donuts and homey outdoor villages. And, good news: Nagrani says this is still possible.

“Apple picking and pumpkin patches are a place where there will (most likely) be maximum limits of how many people can be there at a time,” he said. “Trying to make a reservation so you’re not showing up and being turned away is a great idea.”

While reaching for the perfect honey crisp, Nagrani advises people to follow what he calls the “Big Three”:

  1. Wear a mask

  2. Maintain a distance of six feet

  3. Be alert to hand hygiene (carry hand sanitizer and avoid touching your face and other surfaces)

Nagrani adds that the fall season is optimal for outdoor activities like going on hikes, runs and bike rides — all safe activities during COVID-19. If you aren’t too comfortable with picking and patching this autumn, you can have apples, pumpkins and other goods delivered to your home instead. May I suggest making one of these 50 "warm and cozy" fall dinner recipes? Which, may I add, look absolutely delightful.

Cold, flu & COVID-19: What to expect 

As it quickly becomes September, October and November, the country will experience the terror-stricken trilogy of the common cold, the flu and COVID-19 all at once. Nagrani’s hope is for people to enjoy the beautiful weather outside as it lasts because indoor gatherings will become riskier during the colder months.

“Depending on how quickly it gets cold, folks are clustering more indoors which makes viruses more easily transmissible,” he said. “The cold, the flu and coronavirus have symptoms that overlap, so it’s going to be difficult to tell them apart and there’s going to be more anxiety.”

To reduce anxious feelings, however, Nagrani strongly recommends going to your nearest medical center and getting a flu shot. It’s one of the safest and easiest things you can do to prepare for the season ahead.

I want a boo for fall dates — is that safe? 

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Yes, cuffing season is upon us and images of going on hayrides, holiday shopping errands, and building a snowman (yay for a safe outdoor activity during COVID-19!) are circulating in our heads. Even though stay-at-home orders are virtually nonexistent during this phase of the pandemic, Nagrani cautions against extending your circle. 

“This fall and winter are going to involve less in-person social activity,” he believes. “We are going to have to rely on virtual methods for socializing a bit more, and determining how many people are in your circle, as well as making sure those people are not making larger groups, is important.”

No, COVID-19 did not magically disappear (don’t we all wish), yet dating is not off the table. Nagrani believes dating has always been an exercise in risk and reward, with new risks surfacing during this time.

“The generally-recommended approach is spending more time getting to know someone virtually, whether that be a phone call or a video call, before meeting in person,” he shared. “Ideally, when meeting in person, if you can wear a mask and go somewhere outdoors, [that’s] a good way to meet someone in-person [while] remaining safe during the pandemic.”

If you’re in the “I want to date now” zone, here’s how to impress your next Zoom or FaceTime date.

What’s the 411 on Halloween? 

Let’s address the elephant in the room — October 31. It is safe to assume costume masks of all kinds are going to be sold out at Spirit Halloween, but costumes are the easiest part. 

What about trick or treating? Some homeowners turn off all their lights and go into Halloween hibernation mode to avoid greeting people (my least favorite people at age seven). Is this how trick or treating should be navigated during COVID-19? Should we all turn into those strongly-disliked people that fail to offer a Hershey bar? Nagrani has the scoop.

“Answering the door isn’t necessarily inappropriate,” he said. “ I would suggest not having large groups of children going up to the door at the same time — maybe having two kids at a time going to the door, so there isn’t a large cluster at once.”

Nagrani also advises dropping candy into the trick or treaters’ bags to avoid germs from a shared bowl (after all, we do have a common cold, flu and COVID-19 lingering). If you want absolutely no contact with the outside world on Halloween, place a bowl on your porch and gradually replenish it — Nagrani’s secret tip so one kid on the block doesn’t rob you of all the candy you purchased from CVS the day before.

Is it safe to travel for turkey this Thanksgiving? 

From cinnamon-coated sweet potatoes and that once-a-year cranberry sauce, Thanksgiving is notoriously known for its presentation at the dining room table. Even though Macy’s is still having its annual parade, Nagrani believes fall and winter-related travel should still be viewed as a “risk and reward” mindset.

“I think large family gatherings are probably less in the cards this year, but immediate families who live in a household together will most certainly be able to have Thanksgiving dinner together,” he said. “There is some open-ended question about the weather, as I imagine some folks might be planning to have an outdoor Thanksgiving if the weather cooperates.”

So, if you decide to travel during these few months (unlike me -- my extended family hopped on Zoom for our Easter celebration this year), Nagrani adds that his “Big Three” still stands: wearing a mask, being six feet apart and keeping hand sanitizer in your back pocket. However, there are other safety tips he emphasizes to ensure you’re in your little bubble during COVID-19-related travel.

“Typically with air travel, the most clustering occurs at the gate during boarding, so spacing out the boarding is the best way to maintain social distancing,” he said. “That may involve waiting to board so you can maintain that distance.”

Planes aren’t the only mode of transportation that needs extra airborne-virus protection. Vehicles — you know, your happy helpers for your curbside pickup spree — are also a potential risk of infection spread.

“It is a good tip during any travel using ridesharing to be cautious about hand placement and to wear a mask,” Nagrani noted. “Rolling down the windows to enhance ventilation as much as possible is also a good idea.”