Student-carved pumpkins create a festive and spooky atmosphere on Friday evening.
Student-carved pumpkins create a festive and spooky atmosphere on Friday evening.

Dark Money, Dark Chocolate, and a Dark and Scary Night

Beneath the cartoon aesthetic of lurks a spooky spider web of special interests, and no one wants to claim authorship of the recommendations for safe trick-or-treating that it offers.
By Akila V. Muthukumar and Garrett W. O’Brien

As the country approaches its highest-ever peak of COVID-19 infection, claims the “delight of Halloween is strong as ever.”

At the website’s center is a map produced by the Harvard Global Health Initiative that depicts county-level COVID-19 data in the United States. Each county is color coded — green, yellow, orange, and red — according to its risk level. The website then provides a set of recommendations for how to best celebrate Halloween according to a county’s color classification.

But beneath its cartoon aesthetic and encouragement to “MAKE IT SAFE & KEEP IT FUN” lurks a spooky spider web of special interests. The website is funded by the Halloween and Costume Association, an organization that represents “just about every costume company in the land” and claims to be “the voice of the entire industry,” and it partners with Hershey, one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the world. Both organizations would appear to have a financial stake in ensuring that Halloween celebrations take place, even amid a global pandemic.

How HCA, Hershey, and the Harvard Global Health Initiative intersect in remains unclear.

Howie J. Beige is the founder of Rubies, the largest costume manufacturer in the world and a key player in the HCA decision making. He says that the HCA is the main creator of — but claims that it has made conferring with medical professionals a key part of “coming up with ideas” and developing recommendations.

“It should be a big Halloween, and it will be, but it’s going to be celebrated differently around the country,” Beige says.

Allison Kleinfelter, a Hershey representative in the partnership, says Hershey’s involvement did not include any production of written materials, but the company helped HGHI prepare for media interviews. She clarifies that “it was not an official research review or guidance by Harvard by any means,” but “both Harvard’s Global Health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed the celebration ideas and safety guidelines to ensure consistency with CDC social distancing guidance.”

But Thomas C. Tsai, a researcher from HGHI, contradicts Kleinfelter. He says resolutely that HGHI’s “involvement was just letting them link to our map, and we didn’t have any actual involvement with the specific recommendations.”

The HGHI map of county level COVID-19 data is the centerpiece of the site. It appears just below a playful cartoon of masked children trick-or-treating — one wearing a princess costume and another dressed as mummy. Below the children are instructions on how to read the map. The viewer learns to match their county with a particular “color code” and subsequently to “check out all the safe ways to celebrate and get in on some Halloween hijinks!”

The green zone involves trick-or-treating at houses with sanitary protocols and attending socially distant costume parties. The yellow zone is very similar: recommending homeowners “yeet the treats” to trick-or-treaters from 6 feet away and approving candy shops, parades, and face-mask parties. The orange zone takes a few more precautions but allows neighbors to deliver candy or set up a neighborhood candy hunt. Although the orange and red zones have stricter restrictions, all of the recommendations encourage activities that involve socializing with others and buying costumes and candy for the festivities.

“If you read the recommendations carefully, in the yellow zone it says trick-or-treat, but it says there’s a caveat there,” Tsai explains when questioned about the similarities of the recommendations for the green and yellow zones. The caveat Tsai references is strictly adhering to “official trick or treat guidelines” and “visiting neighbors that have safety measures in place.”

Beige is confident that the green zones are safe and that trick-or-treating is not a problem, as the recommendations are in compliance with CDC social distancing guidelines. “The red zones are definitely more difficult. But I believe any of the other zones… definitely can embrace Halloween,” he says.

He underscores his approval of recommendations for each zone, saying “it doesn’t seem like too many people are saying you can’t celebrate Halloween.” He continues, “We got very good feedback and tremendous support… Our organization has done a lot of research.”

However, Tsai points out that “the CDC rates going door-to-door as a high risk activity,” regardless of safety measures.

It is unclear exactly how HCA formulated the website’s specific recommendations, as Tsai explains that HGHI only provided the website with its map and did not participate in the writing of recommendations. He says that “there’s a difference between data and more editorial content.”

Ingrid T. Katz was the main HGHI researcher advising and collaborating with Katz said in an email that she needed “to steer clear of any more Halloween discussions” and declined to comment on her involvement.

Kleinfelter explains that Hershey’s main contribution to the partnership “was to support final communications and interview preparations for Katz to speak about safe Halloween celebrations.”

Asked whether having candy suppliers like Hershey funding a site encouraging Halloween activities poses a conflict of interest, Beige replies, “I do think Hershey and others really [are] interested in a very safe Halloween.”

Kleinfelter says that the prospective cancellation of traditional Halloween trick-or-treating “was never the issue” for Hershey. She emphasizes that the company planned in advance for the current situation and that their “consumer research indicated they would find creative ways to make the season special.”

According to Beige, the profits would be especially beneficial this year as costume shops are recovering from a tough season of movie cancellations that delayed the release of iconic character costumes the shops had been planning for most of 2020. Beige says that Rubies’ costumes sales generated from new movie releases represent a major part of their revenue model; however, given that most movie debuts have been delayed since the beginning of the pandemic, the industry has taken a serious hit.

Tsai believes that there is no “interference with the actual underlying academic integrity” of the dashboard HGHI provided; he does, however, concede that the information “could be potentially misconstrued.” Tsai says that researchers “don’t control how people use and interpret or misinterpret data” and that it is important for the public to seek out “sources of information” for themselves. Tsai underscores that there are “over 70,000 new cases per day, [and] rising hospitalizations make over 1,000 deaths a day.” He says that the country is “already in a new surge” and that “it’s prudent to err on the side of caution when examining the data or evaluating our behavior practices.”

“No community is an island,” Tsai says, even if the site gives different instructions based on geographic location. “What is your green, yellow, orange, red? The Coronavirus doesn’t respect any boundaries.”

— Staff writer Garrett W. O’Brien can be reached at garrett.o’ Follow him on Twitter @GarrettObrien17.

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