Pumpkin patches open across Arizona, but are they safe for families?

Experience AZ | 22 Oct, 2020 |

With Halloween fast approaching, and COVID-19 still a prominent threat, many are wondering whether their favorite fall activities — like visiting pumpkin patches — are safe to partake in and enjoy.

The CDC classifies “carving or decorating pumpkins with members of your household” and “carving or decorating pumpkins outside, at a safe distance, with neighbors or friends” as low risk Halloween activities, according to their COVID-19 holiday celebration guidelines. But where should families and friends buy their carvable canvases? Will a quick trip to the grocery store have to suffice this year? Or is it safe to indulge in the traditional pumpkin patch?     

Visiting pumpkin patches is a moderate risk activity, according to the CDC, if people use hand sanitizer before touching pumpkins, wear a mask, and maintain social distancing.

Owners, patch masters and employees from pumpkin patches across Maricopa County are encouraging visitors to attend and are adding safety protocols to assure guests of a safe environment.

Karinn Sharp, 16, collects admission tickets at Schnepf Farms’ Pumpkin and Chili Party on Oct. 16. (Photo by Emily Carman)

Pumpkin Patch Pandemic Protocols

“Picking out pumpkins is a healthy outdoor activity and healthy outdoor activities are good,” said Diana Ditkof, a patch manager at the Gilbert location of the Arizona Pumpkin Patch.   

One of the main appeals of pumpkin patches is that they are outdoors. Outdoor settings and large open spaces have been hailed by public health officials as the ideal environments for group gatherings and activities, as long as social distancing is maintained. 

“We have 300 acres here so there’s lots of room for guests to spread out,” said Connor Schnepf, a 4th generation manager of Schnepf Farms in Queen Creek, which hosts a pumpkin and chili party every Thursday-Sunday throughout the month of October. 

While the outdoor aspect helps accommodate and supplement social distancing protocols, many pumpkin patches are also limiting guest capacity to mitigate risks and ensure there is enough space for their guests.

Schnepf’s, which sees 80,000 to 100,000 guests during an average October and 18,000 guests on their busiest days, implemented a capacity limit of 35%.

While this has meant turning away families at the entrance, the capacity limit has “been really well received by our guests,” according to Connor Schnepf. “It’s been beneficial to the safety of everyone and to the experience of coming to the farm.”

Even in an outdoor environment with more stringent capacity limits, sanitation and mask protocols are important to reduce the spread of COVID-19, according to the CDC.          

Many patches are implementing additional cleanings of high touch surfaces such as train rides, pony saddles and even pumpkins.

Schnepf’s popular train ride attraction is sanitized by staff after each trip around the track. And at the Gilbert location of the Arizona Pumpkin Patch, Ditkof is prepared to start wiping down pumpkins as crowd sizes increase.

The implementation of these pumpkin patch protocols has managers feeling confident that they can provide a safe and fun environment for their guests, despite the pandemic.

“The Arizona Department of Health came out here today. They come out every week to check the standards,” Connor Schnepf said on Oct. 16. “It was a lot of work to get to where we are but we got cleared to open up for the festival.”

Colorful pumpkins are displayed just inside the entrance at Schnepf Farms’ Pumpkin and Chili Party on Oct.16 (Photo by Emily Carman)

Risks and Recommendations

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health and Arizona Department of Health Services have not released specific recommendations regarding visits to pumpkin patches or other fall activities.

The CDC has the most comprehensive guidelines tailored to fall activities and upcoming holidays such as Halloween, Día de los Muertos and Thanksgiving

While pumpkin patches are considered moderate risk, several activities associated with pumpkin patches pose a high risk for the spread of COVID-19 according to the CDC.

At MacDonald’s Ranch in Scottsdale, the hayride attraction was cancelled in accordance with CDC guidelines, which classified “going on hayrides or tractor rides with people who are not in your household” as a high risk activity.

“We just felt like we couldn’t sanitize and social distance and operate these attractions safely,” said Kelcie Binnion, the operation manager and daughter of MacDonald’s Ranch owner Robert Richardson.  

The CDC  also warns against “traveling to a rural fall festival that is not in your community if you live in an area with community spread of COVID-19.”

Based on that recommendation, smaller, local pumpkin patches may be the best option for families looking to buy pumpkins and still get that obligatory fall family photo.

The Arizona Pumpkin Patch has 13 locations across the Valley, which offer pumpkins, carving kits, and photo stations but no large attractions.

“Pumpkin picking here is safe because it’s quick,” Ditkof said. “You get your pumpkin and you go home.”

Larger events that host more people and attractions pose more of a risk, according to CDC guidelines, though these risks can be mitigated with proper safety protocols in place.

Robert Johnson, a manager of the Arizona Pumpkin Patch in charge of marketing, said he believes this will be “a historic year for pumpkin sales” despite the pandemic.

“We are expecting with COVID that we will see an increased demand for pumpkins,” Johnson said. “Halloween houses have been cancelled. People are staying home, not travelling. So they want to pick up a pumpkin and have some family time and it’s a safe activity.”

Johnson expects Halloween and the night before will be really crowded and recommends coming in a day or two earlier to pick up a pumpkin.

For those planning to attend, Johnson and all of his fellow patch managers recommend wearing a mask. 

“Everyone knows what to do at this point,” Johnson said. “Wear a mask. It’s the right thing to do.”

Benefits

While risks and protocols may turn people off from attending the pumpkin patch this year, patch managers believe there are benefits to attending.

For one, buying a pumpkin from a local patch supports local, family businesses.

Pumpkins can also support personal health.

Olivia Baker, a registered dietician at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, said “pumpkin is considered a superfood. It is filled with Vitamin A, Vitamin E, lots of fiber and other nutrients.”

While eating pumpkin won’t cure COVID-19, it does contain a lot of antioxidants to benefit overall health, according to Baker.

“COVID-19 shined a lot of light on the importance of diet,” Baker said. “Our body is our first line of defense and the food we eat is our fuel for that defense.”

While Baker doesn’t recommend a diet full of pumpkin pie or pumpkin spice lattes, eating those foods in moderation, and trying out new recipes like pumpkin chili or pumpkin soup, can be beneficial to one’s health.

The final benefit pumpkin patches are trying to offer is a mental break from the worries of the pandemic, according to patch managers.   

“A lot of people need fresh air and sunshine right now,” Binnion said. “We have all had to learn to adjust to this new normal. You know, wearing masks and social distancing and it’s been hard. But, you have to go out and enjoy life even with a new normal.” 

Over at Schnepf’s, employees try to spread positivity with an optimistic motto displayed on their shirts.    

“It’s been a crappy year for everyone. So our motto this year is ‘Positive Memories in 2020’,” Connor Schnepf said. “We want families to come escape and create some wonderful memories together here at the pumpkin party. Come experience a good part of the year.”

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