Halloween is back—if families celebrate safely. Here’s how.

Last Halloween gave us the creeps. But thanks to science, kids can scare up more fun this year.

A reader recently emailed National Geographic Family with a Halloween question. Last year, she and her husband put candy on a table in their driveway so kids wouldn’t risk COVID-19 exposure at her door. Should they do that again this year?

The answer is good news. For most people, trick-or-treating door-to-door is back on. “I think the evidence is pretty clear that kids can safely be together masked, if none of the kids are sick and they try to maintain some distance," says Aaron Milstone, professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University.

It’s no surprise that parents have questions. This time last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended against trick-or-treating; some cities banned Halloween gatherings altogether. Many of us were still sanitizing groceries as well as candy wrappers. (To date, there’s never been a documented case showing that COVID-19 spreads this way.) And “Halloween masks” took on a whole new meaning.

Oh, how things have changed.

Halloween 2021 is poised to pack more treats than tricks; in fact, according to the National Retail Federation, spending for the holiday is projected to hit a record $10.14 billion. No wonder: The CDC now says that kids should be able to participate in many of the activities that the pandemic shut down last year—if they follow a few safety guidelines.

“Although we're still seeing COVID, and people really have to be careful, we’ve learned safe ways for kids to go out and celebrate,” Milstone says.

That means trick-or-treating, pumpkin patches, and hayrides are back on the list, and that's great for kids’ mental health. “Anytime you have anxiety-provoking changes, getting back to the old routines is reassuring,” says Jed Magen, department of psychiatry chair at Michigan State University. “So I think if you made a big deal out of Halloween before, make a big deal out of it again.”

Milstone adds that it’s all about limiting your risk, rather than trying to completely protect yourself 100 percent, which likely isn’t possible. “People need to find ways to safely do things that feel good, and not let kids fall into a mental health crisis,” he says.

Here’s how to scare up a safer Halloween this year.

What's different from last year

A better understanding of the virus and other breakthrough discoveries are helping Halloween make a comeback in 2021. The difference kids will be most excited about is a return to old-fashioned trick-or-treating.

“We know that being outdoors reduces transmission, and masking is effective,” infectious disease expert Sarah Fankhauser says. “So those make me more confident about the safety of trick-or-treating.”

Here’s what else has made this Halloween a little less scary.

Vaccinations. The FDA approved the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine for kids 12 and older in May and are expected give the green light for kids five and up this fall (but probably not in time for them to be fully vaccinated by Halloween). And though there is a slim risk of breakthrough infections, medical experts agree that the vaccine prevents hospitalization and death.

“Before we have an approved vaccine for kids 11 and younger, the COVID vaccine is the ultimate 12th birthday present,” says Shelly Vaziri Flais, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

That means vaccinated kids (and grown-ups) can worry a little less as they trick-or-treat this year. Masks outside are optional, though many experts still urge masking, especially in crowded areas or around people you don’t know. And we now know that the disease is unlikely to spread during a brief interaction between a candy-giver and a goblin or ghoul.

That said, because of the highly contagious Delta variant, the CDC still recommends that vaccinated individuals keep masks on indoors if transmission is high in your area, or if anyone you come in contact with could be at increased risk of complications—or might expose someone else who is.

“The vaccines still prevent severe disease and hospitalization,” Flais says. “But vaccinated individuals can still get it and transmit it.”

So if vaccinated kids ask why they still need masks or distancing at a Halloween party, explain that other people there might have an immunocompromised family member at home or may visit a grandparent the next day, and those people need to be protected.

Less masking outdoors. Last year, we were always supposed to mask up, even outdoors. This year, outdoor masking is largely up to you, based on personal risk assessment. Is your child vaccinated? Will they be in close contact with kids from another household? Is there high transmission in your area? (You can check that here if you're in the United States, or here if you're in Canada.)

Experts say it’s important to also keep in mind the highly contagious Delta variant, which has caused a steep rise in pediatric cases and hospitalizations. “With the Delta variant, wearing masks even outdoors is still highly encouraged, particularly when you're going to be in groups,” says Fankhauser, who is also associate professor of biology at Oxford College of Emory University.

Milstone agrees. “It’s not wrong to wear a mask if you're worried in any environment.”

Magen notes that kids may feel uneasy about safety rules that appear to keep changing. You can help by clearly giving them your family’s rules.

“Last year, in some ways, was more defined,” Magen says. "Nobody was vaccinated. You knew that you had to social distance. You knew that you had to wear a mask. This year, there’s more uncertainty. So you want to give kids fairly concrete instructions—for instance, ‘We’re going to wear masks.’”

Getting together with a group outdoors. Your masked kids can finally trick-or-treat in a group, enjoy a hayride, or even line up at a door outside without counting off six feet. “Wearing a mask and being outdoors can’t guarantee zero risk, but reduces risk tremendously,” Milstone says. “There’s very limited data to suggest that there's outdoor spread of the virus.” With distancing, outdoor activities have shown to be safe.

Stepping indoors. With schools open again, most kids are now accustomed to being masked indoors. And new CDC data shows that schools with universal masking have significantly fewer outbreaks than those without masking, and that counties in which schools require kids to mask up also have less transmission in the surrounding community.

So kids can go indoors for some Halloween fun, with one caveat: no eating. That’s why a haunted house, in which kids keep moving from entrance to exit and maintain masking, could be a safer choice than a party. Still, Fankhauser notes that unlike at school, where contact tracing is in place, "If there was a positive case in a haunted house, you may not know about it.”

No more candy-wrapper sanitizing. Since last Halloween, the science has shown that COVID-19 typically spreads person-to-person via respiratory droplets that come from coughing, sneezing, speaking, singing, or shouting—not usually through surfaces. “That was part of the concern last year,” Fankhauser says. “This year, it's really about reducing that person-to-person transmission.”

But though you no longer need to wipe down the candy, it's still important for kids to wash their hands before eating it because of the slight risk of transmitting virus particles from surfaces.

What’s the same as last year

Though trick-or-treating is back, the pandemic is not over. So some of the same protocols kids and parents followed last Halloween still apply. “We’re all tired of COVID, but COVID is not tired of us,” Flais says. “We have to stay vigilant.”

 Here’s what you should keep doing.

Keep kids home if they feel sick. COVID-19 is hard to diagnose without a test, so it's important to assume all sniffles are suspect. “I hear it every day—‘Oh, but these are just allergies. This is just a cold,’” Flais says. “I had a 13-month-old whose parents thought [the baby] just had pink eye. But it was COVID.”

So how do you break it to your kids that they’ll need to miss Halloween? Magen advises keeping explanations simple, as you would with any illness. “You say, ‘You’re not feeling good right now, and when you're sick, you just can't go out and do things,’” he says. "I would absolutely acknowledge the disappointment. It affirms those reasonable feelings that the kids have.”

With COVID-19, however, it’s important to remind kids that staying home—even if they’ve tested positive but feel fine—helps protect others.

“No kid wants to be sidelined,” Milstone says. “But if they're sick, they're going to need to stay home and not expose other people.”

Wear a good mask. While not all masks look the same, most will do the job. According to the CDC's mask guidelines, any cloth mask that has at least two layers and fits snugly over the nose and mouth is a good choice. (A Halloween mask does not count.) 

So don’t fret over paying big bucks on the trendy protective mask of the moment. And of course, masking up for Halloween provides an opportunity for kids to get creative—the mask might even make the costume!

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