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How to Handle Halloween During COVID-19

A family medicine physician talks redefining trick-or-treating, safe alternatives and shares how she plans on celebrating with her own child.

Editor’s note: This article was updated from an earlier version posted in October 2020.

What would Halloween be without children donned in their favorite character’s apparel—living as a princess, superhero, or villain, even just for a few hours—and demanding candy from their neighbors?

This year, Halloween will inevitably look a little different than last, as vaccines have rolled out, restrictions have loosened, and much of the world has “returned to normal,” says family medicine physician Karen Dong, MD. Will as many families refrain from trick-or-treating and other holiday festivities, or will your neighborhood be packed once again?

With new and emerging coronavirus variants, such as Delta, still on the rise, precautions should remain top of mind to keep your loved ones safe and spooky this Halloween season.

What’s the deal with trick-or-treating?

Dr. Karen Dong headshot

Dr. Karen Dong

The good news is trick-or-treat is not off the table. Last year, we saw many one-way styles of trick-or-treating that helped people social distance, notes Dr. Dong. People got creative; they arranged treats on their front lawn or steps; hung them individually from clotheslines; taped them to popsicle sticks in the ground; or simply left out a bucket for “self-serve.” Some towns even dedicated specific tables as treat “stations.”

The primary concern with trick-or-treating regards the large number of people who pass through the same area (someone’s doorstep/front porch), explains Dr. Dong. “It’s not just a few people. In some neighborhoods, it could be hundreds. The touch contact involved in handing and grabbing candy may also pose a slight risk.”

Those putting together treats should ensure their hands are thoroughly washed and that they’re not exhibiting any suspicious symptoms, recommends Dr. Dong. Those walking around should maintain at least six feet of distance from those outside their household and wash their hands before digging into any of the candy.

Are there safer alternatives?

There are many other festive alternatives considered low- to moderate-risk, such as pumpkin or apple picking; pumpkin carving or decorating contests; virtual costume contests; candy scavenger hunts; outdoor haunted experiences; socially distanced costume parades; and outdoor gatherings.

If you’re vaccinated, outdoor activities fall on the low-risk side of the spectrum, notes Dr. Dong. “If you’re able to social distance, masks aren’t needed. However, if you find yourself in a setting where social distancing is difficult – such as a crowded line for a hayride – masks are still a good idea.”

Indoor activities fall more on the moderate side of the spectrum. For families and friends with older children and adults who’ve been vaccinated, it is reasonably safe to have family gatherings of less than 25 people, said Dr. Dong. For those whose vaccine status are unknown or negative, it is still advised to wear masks or have outdoor gatherings.

Before making any plans, you should evaluate your own personal risk, added Dr. Dong. Do you have a chronic condition that increases your risk for severe symptoms of COVID-19? Do you take care of any loved ones who are at high risk? Ideally, your choice of activities should match your risk level.

Group of kids trick or treating during Covid-19 pandemic wearing face masks

How can you talk to your children about it?

“You have to reflect on what we’ve been through as a nation in the past two years,” continued Dr. Dong. Parents should try to set expectations earlier, rather than later. This is likely to be easier this year, because most kids have adapted very well to pandemic norms, such as wearing masks, and will expect a repeat of last year.

What’s the riskiest?

Crowded costume parties and indoor haunted houses are defined as high-risk by the CDC and should be avoided unless you’re vaccinated. The CDC still recommends wearing a mask indoors for these activities.

“The fact of the matter is they involve too many people together in close quarters,” said Dr. Dong. “It’s also believed that as gatherings surpass 25 people, the higher the risk increases.”

This recommendation stands even more so for parties that involve a lot of young adults drinking, adds Dr. Dong. This is an entirely different ballgame and one of the biggest concerns in terms of COVID-19 spread. Parents should educate, advise, and try to persuade their children as much as possible to avoid these kinds of environments.

What’s better to wear—a surgical mask, a Halloween mask, or both?

If you trick-or-treat in an environment where you can’t socially distance, you may decide to wear a mask. Keep in mind, a costume mask alone won’t do much good, says Dr. Dong. “Medically, it’s safer to wear a surgical mask either underneath your festive one or as a part of your getup.”

What are you doing for Halloween?

“I’m lucky that my son is only four-years-old, so he only remembers a pandemic Halloween,” said Dr. Dong. “This year, we have a homemade ghost costume for him. We plan to get candy from tables and steps and social distance, but otherwise enjoy ourselves and our neighbors.”

Don’t let the pandemic put you in scary situations this Halloween. Remember to avoid what is high risk and opt for some safer options. Adults and children—and ghouls and goblins—alike can still be excited and engaged in the holiday.

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COVID-19, Healthy You

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