Last year, Louisville mom Melody Raidy took her children to a pumpkin patch, Halloween at the zoo, trick-or-treating at a botanical garden, a haunted house, and even baked and built a haunted cookie house.
This year, she’s not sure they’ll even trick-or-treat.
According to the National Retail Federation, Americans shelled out about $8.8 billion last year on Halloween items like costumes, candy, and decorations. Halloween 2020 was projected to be even bigger, thanks to a full moon, a Saturday holiday, and daylight saving time kicking in at midnight.
But the pandemic has changed all that. Recently the CDC came out with Halloween guidelines recommending against traditional trick-or-treating. And communities across the country have announced their own scary solutions: Los Angeles County is strongly discouraging door-to-door candy gathering while prohibiting all Halloween parties (even outdoor ones); Springfield, Massachusetts, has officially canceled trick-or-treating.
“I told my oldest that Halloween was canceled,” says mom Liany Arroyo of Hartford, Connecticut. “At first, she didn’t believe me. Now she does.” Many other parents are saying their kids have reluctantly agreed to accepting a personal bag of candy and calling it a night. But does that really have to happen?
Make no mistake: Regardless of how you choose to celebrate Halloween, social distancing, masks, and hand washing are all still critical measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But many experts are optimistic that fun can still be had with some flexibility and creativity.
“When people warm up to the new norm, they get creative and innovative,” says Aaron Milstone, professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University. “I jokingly said to a child, ‘You can hold out a little fishing net.’ Kids can collect their candy in so many fun, clever ways.”
Adds Jacqueline Rhew, a licensed therapist and pediatric clinical consultant with AMITA Health’s Behavioral Medicine Institute: "We’re teaching our children to be flexible, and sometimes different is even better. It's about creating new traditions.”
How to trick-or-treat safely
Traditional trick-or-treating is considered high-risk by the CDC, so some parents are creating a “safe route” with a few trusted families who agree on pre-Halloween safety protocols as well as how they’ll prep and distribute candy. Kids can then collect goodies on that route only.
“One-way” trick-or-treating for grab-and-go goodie bags set out and spaced apart (for instance, at the end of someone’s driveway) is also less risky than getting candy at the door. Some houses might offer a communal candy bucket to avoid face-to-face interactions, but parents should still be cautious about all those strange tiny hands rummaging through the treats.
“Hand washing is the most important thing,” Milstone says. "Viruses are not going to get you sick unless you put them in your mouth.” That means that even if the wrapper is infected (most scientists agree that the virus doesn’t easily spread on surfaces such as candy wrappers), the candy inside won’t be. Milstone says that as long as kids thoroughly wash their hands after unwrapping prepackaged candy, eating it is low-risk.
For an extra safety measure, Milstone says parents can wipe down candy wrappers with an alcohol or other disinfecting wipe before letting the kids tear into their stash. (That doesn’t mean kids can get away with not washing their hands before eating, though!) And if your boo crew just can’t wait to dig into their candy before they get home, he advises to bring along hand sanitizer. (Look for one that’s at least 60 percent alcohol.)
Any outdoor candy-gathering adventure should still include masks and social distancing. Milstone adds that kids walking by other people on the sidewalks shouldn’t be too much of a concern. “We don’t think there’s great risk from people just passing by,” he says. “It’s more about prolonged close contact and who you trick or treat with.”
Personal protective equipment for kids is a must if you're out and about, but that doesn’t mean it has to interrupt a costume.
“What could kids dress up as that would automatically incorporate a mask?” asks Hollywood event planner Edward Perrotti. “A doctor? A firefighter? Do you think about dressing up as a family of first responders?”
Inflatable costumes are projected to be a social-distancing hit. Shelly Vaziri Flais of the American Academy of Pediatrics predicts we’ll see a lot of ninjas and hazmat suits this year. And masks themselves, can become costumes.
“I like the idea of a cat costume where the mask has whiskers and a nose,” says Sarah Fankhauser, assistant professor of biology and infectious disease expert at Oxford College of Emory University. “It would be fairly simple to take a cloth mask and use marker or felt to make all sorts of animal faces."
But remember that not all masks will provide adequate protection. “Anything that has some way for those droplets to get out or in is not going to serve the same purpose as a cloth or dust mask,” Milstone says.
That includes rubber Halloween masks with nose or eye holes, and fabric character masks that kids can see through but others can't. “If you can see through it, it’s probably not doing much,” Milstone says.
Party on … or not
Where it's permitted, some parents are opting for small Halloween parties instead of full trick-or-treat mode. But even with an outdoor setting, protective gear, and social distancing, the CDC says those gatherings still carry a moderate risk of infection. “Masking, hand washing, and physical distancing should be part of any party, regardless of the size,” Milstone says. “Outdoor parties are safer than indoor parties.”
If you do decline Halloween bash invitations for your children, Flais encourages parents to arm kids with reasonable excuses, perhaps having them name people in their lives who they want to protect. “It’s important for kids to learn to speak up to their friends for what is right,” she says. “I’ve been telling families that it’s just one day, but it’s a day that could have a ripple effect on other people’s health for days to come
How parents react will often determine how well kids take disappointing news like canceled party plans. “Adults need to be calm and not stress too much, because children will pick up on adults’ anxiety,” says Jed Magen, Department of Psychiatry chair at Michigan State University. “Tell them that there will be other times they can go, but that this is a special year.”
Agrees Rhew, “Kids follow our lead. So if we say, ‘I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen,’ they’ll be excited. If they can’t handle change, we have to help teach them.”
More safe and spooky-fun ideas
“Children respond best when there are clear guidelines and some choice within the guidelines,” says pediatric psychologist Kelly Banneyer of Texas Children's Hospital. So besides catching candy with a fishing pole, what can kids do this year? Here are some festive ideas.
Candy hunt. Trick-or-treating can still happen—just in your own home. Haunt your house by hiding treats throughout your home … and maybe some surprise scares in between the candy. For safe prowls outdoors, some families are creating mini scavenger hunts for their kids by asking neighbors if the parents can hide goodies in their front yards.
Socially distanced sweets. If you’re opting to keep kids indoors even if others will be trick-or-treating, let them have fun giving out the candy—in a new way. “I’ve been thinking of all sorts of fun ways to deliver trick-or-treat candy to kids, everything from using a series of gutters from 10 feet away to a pneumatic cannon to that thing that you use to fling tennis balls for a dog,” says pro pumpkin carver Tom Nardone. More ideas: a chute that sends down candy from your second story, or a candy slide from your window.
Pumpkin power. The CDC points to pumpkin decorating as one of the safest ways you can still go wild on Halloween. Nardone, author of Extreme Pumpkins, is hosting a virtual pumpkin contest to motivate your creepy carvers. He also offers this tip: to make a carved pumpkin last, spritz it with bathroom spray that contains bleach. "It won’t bleach your pumpkin, but it will keep your pumpkin," he says.
Scary good. Being shut in doesn’t mean kids can’t reach out. “You can create sealed trick-or-treat bags and deliver them to a community center,” Perrotti suggests. Rhew agrees. “Think about all the people in nursing homes and places where they are isolated,” she says. “Can we create Halloween-themed baskets and cards? Can we drop things off instead of doing things for ourselves? Helping others can create a new kind of Halloween joy.”