The leaves are turning color, the air is crisp and cool, and that means Halloween is right around the corner. Typically the start of the holiday season for those who celebrate it, Halloween is all about haunted houses, costumes, and getting candy from strangers, but the COVID-19 pandemic is changing everything, including how people participate.
Several cities around the country have already canceled their community Halloween gatherings. Los Angeles County tried to place a ban on trick-or-treating, but the health department backed down on Sept. 9 and is now only recommending against it, according to CNN.
And the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently published their guidance on how to celebrate safely throughout the holiday season. One notable standout for Halloween? Traditional trick-or-treating is a considered higher-risk activity that should be avoided.
We get it. Crowds, ringing doorbells, contact with people who could carry the virus and not know it. So how do we do this safely?
The Need for ‘Normal’ Is... Normal
For me, Halloween means breaking out the pumpkin décor and rubber spiders. I am that neighbor who hands out full-size candy bars. And this year I’ll do it again—with adjustments for safety. I’m not alone: a poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of the National Confectioners Association finds 63 percent of people say they will find creative and safe ways to celebrate Halloween 2020.
Anything to make things seem “normal.” Kids need that sense of normalcy, according to an expert.
“There is no going back to the way things were, but we can find new and creative ways to do old things and traditions,” said Dr. Ann-Louise T. Lockhart, a San Antonio pediatric psychologist who is also a member of Verywell's Review Board. She added:
“It is part of our human nature to drift back into the familiar, so we need to be proactive in helping our kids reach that in a safe and appropriate way,”
Deciding How to Participate in Halloween Events
- Read through the CDC’s Halloween safety recommendations and the activities considered to be lower-, moderate-, and higher-risk.
- If you’re still on the fence, Dr. Lockhart suggests sitting down with your child and getting their input. “Kids want to feel as though they have a sense of independence and control, so including them in the discussion about something that only happens once a year is really important,” she says.
- Before you make a decision, think local. The CDC keeps track of current COVID-19 data here. "I think this [decision to trick-or-treat] should be guided by the local area’s COVID rates/risk—and health of the members of the family," says Dr. Tyra Tennyson Francis, family physician and Verywell Review Board member. "Are local rates lowering? Any immunocompromised family members?"
If you’d prefer to sit this one out, that’s OK, too.
Does a Costume Mask Provide Protection From the Virus?
Many people have questions about masks. Will a costume mask be sufficient protection?
"It may be best to consider a Halloween-themed cloth mask," says Dr. Vanessa Nzeh, an internal medicine specialist in Houston and a Verywell Review Board member.
"Costume masks may be worn, but keep in mind they are not a substitute for a cloth mask unless it is made of two or more layers of breathable fabric that covers your mouth and nose and doesn’t leave gaps around your face,” advises Dr. Nzeh. “Also, costume masks should not be worn over a cloth mask as this can be dangerous if the costume mask makes it difficult to breathe.”
Experts, as well as the CDC, advise against traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating or having a trunk-or-treat this year. It seems that the physical distancing element is the biggest deterrent.
“Keeping children and chaperones six feet apart is very difficult during trick-or-treating through the neighborhoods,” says Dr. Bita Nasseri, a Los Angeles physician and mother of three. “The concept of keeping your crowd in a bubble or a pod is completely jeopardized by exposure to larger groups from your neighborhood.”
Giving Out Candy
If you still want to hand out candy, the CDC says a moderate-risk way to do so is to set up a one-way trick-or-treat station with individually wrapped goodie bags lined up on a table for families to grab and go while continuing to social distance (such as at the end of a driveway or at the edge of a yard). If you choose this option, be sure to "wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after preparing the bags," the CDC recommends. That means no group candy dishes or bowls left outside your door.
Sanitizing the Candy Haul
Do we need to sanitize the candy hauls before eating? One expert thinks you can skip this.
"The risk of transmission of coronaviruses on surfaces is low, so this may not be necessary. But if you feel the need, go for it!" says Dr. Nzeh.
Remember: Always maintain physical distance (at least six feet), wear a mask, and wash hands often.
That’s a relief because the idea of spending the day wiping down peanut-butter cups isn’t exactly thrilling.
Creative Ideas From Parents
Kelli Kirk, a Seattle mom, says she’s already thinking of workarounds. “We are going to MacGyver some sort of candy delivery system,” she says. “Picture a clothesline with candy clipped to it. The kids take the candy from it when it comes out, like from the front door to the porch steps.”
Julie Bergmans, also of Seattle, got a head start on her candy delivery system earlier this summer. "We made a pie chute as part of a socially distanced art tour to replace Burning Man this year as it was canceled,” she says. “And it was a really amazing experience. Burners and neighbors stood at the end of our 12-foot chute, cleaned their hands, and got a pastry.”
Bergmans says the pie chute was such a hit that it’s being recycled in October. “We loved doing it, and it’s coming back for Halloween as the Little Chute of Horrors."
What About Those Other Fun, Frightening Events?
Around this time of year, corn mazes, pumpkin patches, and “haunted” houses are extremely popular. Are they safe, or should we skip? That all depends, according to experts.
“Socially distanced outdoor, open-air events where individuals are wearing masks and remain greater than six feet apart would be considered moderate risk," Dr. Nzeh advises. That puts pumpkin patches and corn mazes into the “moderate risk” category.
Scratch those “haunted” houses off your list. “Indoor haunted houses would be considered higher risk as this is an enclosed space with the potential for crowding and screaming,” says Dr. Nzeh.
If screaming will likely occur, greater distancing is advised by the CDC. The greater the distance, the lower the risk of spreading a respiratory virus.
Arm yourself with a mask and hand sanitizer “of at least 60 percent alcohol” before heading to any event, Dr. Nzeh recommends.
Remember, It's Flu Season, Too
Dr. Nasseri brings up another good point that many of us seem to forget in the COVID-19 era: “October is well into the fall cold and flu season. Not only do we not want the spread of COVID, we also don’t want the spread of the flu.”
You Can Still Have Fun
We don’t know how long we’ll be living with the threat of COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate seasonal events and holidays. We’ll be smart, we’ll get creative.
"This pandemic thing isn't something we could have seen coming,” says Bill Roberts, a Phoenix dad. “Every day is another wild improvisation."
For a full list of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Halloween safety guidelines, click here.