“Is your child trick-or-treating this year?” I asked this question of parents over text and Zoom, wondering whether I should allow my daughter to go house to house, grabbing candy and dumping it into a white pillowcase. Most didn’t know how to answer. Some said, “Maybe,” while others said, “No, I’m worried my son and daughter might catch the virus,” or answered with a sigh and said, “I just don’t know.”
The question many households are asking during Halloween 2020 — Should we let kids go trick-or-treating during the pandemic? — has no easy answer, like seemingly all questions related to the novel coronavirus. Outdoor activities are generally said to be safer than indoor ones. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released guidance on Halloween, saying that collecting candy door to door is high-risk.
This year’s holiday had all the hallmarks of a perfect night: It’s on a Saturday, and there will be a full moon. But with pandemic numbers predicted to spike in autumn, how should parents handle eager children who crave old-fashioned fun and normalcy during Halloween?
How to assess personal and community risk
As of Sept. 17, more than 587,000 children had tested positive for covid-19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children represented 0 to 0.33 percent of all covid-19 deaths.
So with that in mind, how do we assess the risk to our children?
“When we get down to the discussion around Halloween, it’s really knowing about your own environment and what’s going on in your neighborhood in your area to really make decisions whether or not to trick-or-treat,” advised Jared Muenzer, pediatric emergency room doctor and physician-in-chief at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Consulting the CDC’s covid-19 data tracker can help you determine whether and how you can participate in Halloween. By clicking on a particular region, you can learn the total number of cases and deaths in a specific county, as well as the number of infections per every 100,000 people.
“Most of the data we’re seeing is based on zip codes, and that is a still pretty large geographic area. Some of these include both rural and urban areas. And this factor needs to be weighed in terms of making the decision to allow kids to trick-or-treat,” said Jon McGreevy, section chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine and assistant director of Pediatric Emergency Department at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
Parents must consider the rate of infection in their community, McGreevy added, saying he considers daily positive tests between 5 and 10 percent to be moderate community spread (less than 5 percent being low). “My stance would be if your community is in the moderate risk for community spread or lower that trick-or-treating would be an acceptable practice with modifications and protection," he said.
Other factors parents should consider are health risks present in the household: obesity, diabetes, chronic pulmonary conditions such as asthma and COPD, as well as if a member of the family is over 65 years or old.
McGreevy also thinks parents should consider what trick-or-treating looks like in a particular neighborhood; the risk may be higher in a crowded apartment building than spread-out houses in the suburbs.
What precautions should you take if you decide to trick-or-treat?
Phoenix pediatrician Kristin Struble said she thinks giving kids the opportunity to be outside and to be social (with distancing) is important for mental health. “Not having routine really impacts kids, and as we come into the holidays, trick-or-treating and participating in Halloween activities can help kids with their minds,” she said.
With that in mind, here are some tips from pediatricians to keep children safe if you decide to let them trick-or-treat:
- Have kids wear a face mask. (Many costumes could easily incorporate one.)
- Adhere to social-distancing guidelines by standing six feet apart.
- Have a parent accompany children, regardless of age, to hold them accountable with mask wearing and social distancing.
- Avoid congregating around doorsteps and porches.
- Use hand sanitizer after receiving candy from each house.
- Do not eat candy while trick-or-treating — parents should make certain hands are clean before kids start touching their faces and eating candy.
- Make certain kids wash their hands as soon as they get home.
- Have kids remove their costumes and shower.
- No need to disinfect candy wrappers.
“Parents should use outdoor spaces to hand out candy,” McGreevy said. “Use sidewalks or driveways as places to make contact instead of everyone touching doorbells or door handles or crowding into an entryway.
“If you’re a really good host, you can also provide hand sanitizer.”
Muenzer said parents should also wear face masks when handing out candy. If there is an option “to go one step further and do individual packages of candy and use a table to set up, it lessens risk because kids aren’t rooting through a bowl.”
One Ohio dad went viral for creating a six-foot candy chute for a socially distanced and touch-free experience.
Don’t forget about other hazards
Muenzer cautions parents not to forget about normal hazards that can occur during trick-or-treating. As always: Kids should stay on the sidewalks and not cross streets unless there is a crosswalk. Have them bring a flashlight and wear protective gear such as reflective or neon vests, bands or sashes so drivers passing by can see children clearly.
“I think parents have to continue to be diligent about safety things that are unrelated to covid-19,” Muenzer said.
Consider the alternatives
Though the CDC listed trick-or-treating as a higher-risk activity (along with trunk-or-treats, crowded indoor costume parties and haunted houses), there are plenty of Halloween traditions it listed as “lower risk.” Among them: carving and displaying pumpkins, putting on a Halloween scavenger hunt for your children, holding a virtual costume contest and having a Halloween movie night with your household.
“I doubt we will do any traditional trick-or-treating,” said Rhiannon Giles of Durham, N.C., mother to a 5-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. “I’m hopeful we can find a few houses with grab-and-go bags of candy — that feels a little safer to me.” She is trying to do fun things in their yard, like a candy hunt and possibly taking a stroll through the neighborhood to show off costumes.
Chloe Yelena Miller from Glover Park in the District will not be allowing her 7-year-old to trick-or-treat this year. Their condo board is encouraging the possibility of a door decorating contest and “then the kids can walk around and leave notes about what they like about the decorations,” she said. She understands this isn’t ideal. “We are sad that our child who loves Halloween won’t be able to trick-or-treat, but we will try to make the season fun for him with activities at home.”
Nicole Gamache-Kocol, a mother from the Bay Area, said her “main concern about Halloween is other people. We do not have a social bubble and do not go out for patio dining and mostly stay home. I worry others in my neighborhood will be out and about, which would be risky.” Instead, her family is considering decorating rooms in their house with spooky scenes and having their 5-year-old go trick-or-treating inside.
“Halloween is our favorite holiday, and the family is disappointed that they won’t be able to to enjoy it as they usually do, but we are committed to doing the most they can to help lessen the spread of covid-19,” she said.