Halloween this year should have been ripe with possibilities. In 2020, the holiday will fall on a Saturday that also happens to be a full moon and the last day of daylight savings time, promising an extra hour to sleep off those moonlit shenanigans.
Unfortunately, this Halloween is also happening in the midst of a pandemic, and COVID-19 is rising sharply in many parts of the United States. Last time a pandemic struck, in the fall of 1918, deaths peaked around Halloween as a second and worst wave of influenza swept over the United States. This year too the usual Halloween festivities will have to be canceled or adapted.
“I’m pretty worried right now since we’re in the middle of a new surge of COVID cases,” says Poj Lysouvakon, the pediatric director of the Mother-Baby Unit at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital. “We have really been advising our families to play it very cautiously with their kids for Halloween celebrations.”
However, all is not lost. There are ways for both kids and adults to enjoy Halloween while also taking precautions against the novel coronavirus.
“There are no activities other than physically living in a bubble and never leaving that are without risk in terms of COVID exposure or transmission,” acknowledges Richard Malley, a pediatrician in the division of infectious diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital. “In many ways, Halloween is a community activity…so everybody has to play her part, his part, to really make sure that we are reducing the risk of transmission as low as it possibly can go.”
As long as you’re following local guidelines for Halloween safety, he says, you can still enjoy the holiday. “Halloween is an activity that could be done safely, and in a way that tries to put some joy and some fun in what has been obviously a very difficult year for lots of people,” Malley says.
Some Halloween activities are riskier than others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have posted detailed advice for assessing which ones are most likely to worsen the spread of COVID-19. Decorating your home is a pretty safe bet, as are carving pumpkins, setting up a Halloween scavenger hunt for your kids at home, and having a virtual costume contest with friends. He also suggests getting creative with your activities. “If you’re going to go outside for a walk that’s safely distanced, you can do a scavenger hunt there looking for Halloween-themed decorations of people’s houses,” Lysouvakon says. “The caveat here is if you or any member of your household is sick, this is probably a good time to refrain from any celebrations and just really stay in the house.”
Trick or treating
Lysouvakon wants to make it clear that the traditional Halloween pastime of going door to door in search of candy is not a good idea this year. “Trick or treating is the heart and soul of Halloween,” he says. “Unfortunately, COVID has really changed how we practice this rite.”
If trick-or-treaters are going to come calling, you can set up a treat station outside. “Ideally you want to set up a table and have individual piles or bags of goodies that have already been pre-packed and lined up so your trick-or-treaters can just grab and go,” Lysouvakon says. Some adult supervision may be needed, though, to make sure that everybody stays six feet or more away from each other.
The novel coronavirus is not usually spread by touching contaminated surfaces, Lysouvakon says. To keep the risk of transmission as low as possible, you can leave a bottle of hand sanitizer at the table so that the kids can clean their hands before and after grabbing their candy. You should also wash your hands before and after preparing the bags. After returning from trick-or-treating, kids should wash their hands thoroughly, Lysouvakon says, but it’s not necessary for parents to wipe down each piece of candy.
Leaving candy outside instead of handing it out at the door also protects the person providing the loot, Malley says. The CDC recently updated its definition of what constitutes close contact to account for the transmission risk posed by multiple brief encounters with a person who has COVID-19.
“The person delivering the candy is doing that all night long,” Malley says. “You have to consider the cumulative period of exposure.” You can still greet trick-or-treaters outside at a safe distance, he adds.
If you are going trick-or-treating, it’s best to carry hand sanitizer and keep your hunt for sweets to your own social bubble. “This is not maybe the best time to combine with other families of same-age children and walk around with them,” Malley says. And keep aware of your surroundings, he advises. If you see a house with a line of six families in front of it, it’s probably best to come back later after the crowd has dispersed.
You and your kids can still get dressed up for Halloween. Unfortunately, though, Halloween masks are not effective in preventing COVID-19 transmission, Lysouvakon says. He recommends wearing a Halloween-themed cloth mask instead. Don’t wear a costume mask over your cloth mask, though, because it could impede your breathing.
Indoor Halloween parties and haunted houses are also a bad idea. “The last place you want to be is in an enclosed place with a lot of people screaming,” Lysouvakon says. If you do attend a Halloween party, keep it to less than 10 people who keep their masks on inside.
For adult celebrants, it’s important this year to practice moderation when you drink or use marijuana. “Overindulgence of these substances can lead to impairment of your judgment and may lead you to take on riskier practices that can increase the transmission of the virus that causes COVID among your friends and your loved ones,” Lysouvakon says.
Beyond that, Lysouvakon says, remember to follow the normal safety precautions you’d take at Halloween. Inspect candy to make sure it’s properly wrapped before your kids eat it, and if you’re going trick-or-treating after dark, make sure they wear brightly-colored costumes or carry glow sticks or reflective bracelets. “I always tell my teen drivers, you want to avoid driving, period, on Halloween night, because kids run out into the middle of the street because they’re all excited,” Lysouvakon says.
For kids especially, Halloween this year is about much more than dressing up and gorging on candy (as awesome as both of those things are). COVID-19 has upended kids’ routines and way of life, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. “They’re feeling a lot of stress right now, between familial stress over loss of jobs [and] pay cuts to kids’ inability to go to school or take part in group activities,” Lysouvakon says. “Halloween is really important because it helps these kids establish a sense of normalcy again.”
In addition to providing a much-needed distraction, Halloween is also an opportunity to cultivate resilience, Malley says. “It is important to try to do things that are outdoors and safe and fun and basically celebrating families as units that are going to go through this together.”