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Oct. 26, 2020, 3:15 p.m. EDT

Is trick-or-treating safe? Tips for a pandemic Halloween

Some parents aren’t canceling Halloween. Here’s what public health experts say.

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By Nicole Lyn Pesce


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Boo: CDC discourages trick-or-treating and Halloween parties during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trick-or-treat? This year, the question is more like, sick-or-treat?

As Halloween approaches, many families are grappling with whether or not it’s safe to let kids go out and collect candy during the pandemic.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to climb, with the U.S averaging 69,804 cases a day in the past week, and the death toll passing 225,000 people. So the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shared safety tips for Halloween and Dia de los Muertos . And the fall fests will have to look pretty different this year if families want to avoid getting or spreading the coronavirus.

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the CDC is advising against traditional trick-or-treating, where kids put on costumes and go door to door getting sweets from their neighbors. While health officials are still learning about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, it is thought to spread mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. So children gathering in groups with people from outside their households, and then going door to door, has the potential to spread the virus. An infected person handing out candy to groups of kids coming to their door could also pass along COVID-19.

And indoor activities such as costume parties and haunted houses — packed with shrieking guests potentially spreading the virus with every scream — should also be avoided, the CDC says, along with crowded Dia de los Muertos (aka Day of the Dead) parades and house parties.

Instead, the CDC suggests that families take kids on a scavenger hunt in their neighborhood, where they look for Halloween-themed things while walking outside and keeping six feet away from other people. Or they can do “one-way trick-or-treating,” which involves picking up wrapped goody bags left at the ends of driveways or the edges of yards, rather than two-way interactions at front doors.

One enterprising Ohio dad even went viral for creating a candy chute for touch-free trick-or-treating:

And that’s spawned a number of creative copycats drumming up socially-distanced ways to give and receive candy without also spreading or catching the virus.

Here’s the CDC’s guide to safer trick-or-treating:

  • Avoid direct contact with trick-or-treaters.

  • Give out treats outdoors, if possible.

  • Set up a station with individually bagged treats for kids to take.

  • Wash hands before handling treats.

  • Wear a mask.

A note on costume safety : The CDC warns that a Halloween costume mask, such as a plastic mask, is not a substitute for a cloth face mask in limiting the spread of COVID-19. A costume mask should not be used unless it is made of two or more layers of breathable fabric that covers the mouth and nose, and it doesn’t leave gaps around the face.

And do not wear a costume mask over a protective cloth mask , because this can be dangerous if the costume mask makes it hard to breathe. Instead, consider using a Halloween-themed cloth mask.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has shared a similar set of safety guidelines, advising children and adults to avoid large gatherings, and to meet outdoors, maintain a distance of six feet from others, wear cloth face coverings and wash their hands frequently. With regard to trick-or-treating, the AAP suggests that families avoid groups or clustering at doorsteps, and that residents giving treats consider handing out prepackaged treat bags while sitting outside — and wearing face masks, of course.

“The role of touching objects in the spread of COVID-19 is not yet clear at this point, but to be on the safe side, if your child collects treats from a few, socially distanced neighbors, you may want to wipe the packages with a sanitizing cloth or let them sit for a couple of days before the child can access them,” the AAP guidance reads.

Opinion: How to do Halloween and trick-or-treating safely this year

That’s the approach Lance Somerfeld is taking with his 5-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. The NYC dad who founded the City Dads Group told MarketWatch that his family plans to trick-or-treat in the less congested Long Island suburbs, and their usual group candy crawl and pizza party with several other families has been scrapped for making the rounds with just two other kids.

“Everyone will stay at the edge of the driveways, and the neighbors will have bowls of candy set out, and the candy is (individually) wrapped, so it’s very easy to wipe down the wrappers when you get home, and not ruin the contents inside,” he said. “You can still really enjoy your holiday if you do it the right way.”

James Lopez, the Cool4dads.com founder who has three boys ages 4, 7 and 13, recently took his sons camping instead of the usual door to door Halloween haul on Staten Island. They ran through a few corn mazes and participated in a socially distanced candy giveaway at their camp site, he told MarketWatch, noting the camp site also hosted a small event where people decorated their campers and put out candy.

And they’ll play it safe on Halloween day by visiting just four or five friends’ houses, and keeping their distance. “Pick up the candies, laugh from our windows and keep it going,” he said.

Manhattan mom Denise Albert still tentatively plans to take her 12-year-old son trick-or-treating while armed with face masks and gloves, but she will “continue to watch everything” leading up to the holiday before making a final decision.She feels comfortable being outside, she said, as long as her family stays six feet apart from other people. “We typically have a small gathering in our apartment and hand out candy, but this year we’ll just meet outside with masks on,” Albert, co-founder of TheMoms.com , told MarketWatch. “I will not cancel Halloween, but we will do it in a safe way.”

It appears they’re not the only families somewhat spooked by COVID-19 this Halloween. The National Retail Federation surveyed more than 7,600 consumers in early September about their pandemic Halloween plans, and more than three in four said the virus is impacting their activities , with the number of people celebrating the holiday dropping to 58% from the 68% who participated last year . The number of people planning to attend or host parties, go trick-or-treating, hand out candy and visit haunted houses has dropped, and overall consumer spending is expected to slip from $8.78 billion in 2019 to $8.05 billion this year.

What’s interesting is that while fewer people are participating in Halloween 2020, those who are still getting into the ghoulish spirit are spending more this year; $92.12 on average compared with $86.27 in 2019, particularly on decorations and candy.

And U.S. sales of Halloween candy were up 13% over last year in the month ending Sept. 6, according to data from market research firm IRI and the National Confectioners Association. Sales of Halloween chocolate alone are up 25%. “So much has been taken from our kids this year — classes cut short, sports cancelled, summer camps cancelled. I refuse to take away the joy of trick or treating from my kids,” one Georgia mother told the Associated Press.

Related: Americans are loading up on Halloween candy, whether they can trick or treat or not

Indeed, nearly three in four parents in a new LendingTree survey of 1,000 consumers said they plan to spend more this Halloween, in part because their kids have missed out on so many other celebrations in 2020 because of the pandemic, and they want to make up for an otherwise “lousy” year. And just under half (47%) said they decorated for Halloween earlier this year, with more than one in five buying new decorations for the occasion.

Somerfeld noticed more of his upper East Side neighbors decking their brownstones for Halloween. “The decorations are up much earlier than I’ve ever seen,” he said. He suggested it could be because more people are working from home, so they have had more time to carve pumpkins and string up fake cobwebs. “People are going a little bit bigger this year,” he said.

Albert also bought some small pumpkins for her home a month ago. “I think it’s the earliest I have ever started with Halloween — we just started school! — but we need things to look forward to and to celebrate, especially this year,” she said.

Below are the CDC guidelines for celebrating Halloween safely during the pandemic. Keep in mind that these recommendations are meant to supplement — not replace — any state, local, territorial or tribal health and safety laws, rules and regulations.

Lower risk Halloween activities:

  • Carving or decorating pumpkins with members of your household, and displaying them.

  • Carving or decorating pumpkins outside with neighbors and friends while keeping a safe (6-foot) distance.

  • Decorating your house, apartment or living space.

  • Doing a Halloween scavenger hunt, where children are given lists of Halloween-themed things to look for while they walk outdoors from house to house admiring Halloween decorations at a distance.

  • Having a virtual Halloween costume contest.

  • Having a Halloween movie night at home with the people you live with.

  • Having a scavenger hunt-style trick-or-treat search with household members in or around your home, rather than going house to house.

Moderate risk Halloween activities:

  • One-way trick-or-treating, where individually-wrapped goodie bags are lined up (such as at the end of a driveway or at the edge of a yard) for families to grab and go while continuing to social distance. [If you are giving out goodie bags, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after preparing the bags.]

  • Having a small outdoor, open-air costume parade where people are distanced more than 6 feet apart.

  • Attending a costume party held outdoors where protective masks are used, and people can remain more than 6 feet apart.

  • Going to an open-air, one-way, walk-through haunted forest where appropriate mask use is enforced, and people can stay more than 6 feet apart.

  • Visiting pumpkin patches or orchards where people use hand sanitizer before touching pumpkins or picking apples, where wearing masks is encouraged or enforced, and people are able to maintain social distancing.

  • Having an outdoor Halloween movie night with local family friends with people spaced at least 6 feet apart

Note: If screaming will likely occur during any of these activities, then greater distancing is advised. The greater the distance, the lower the risk of spreading a respiratory virus.

Avoid these higher risk Halloween activities:

  • Traditional trick-or-treating, where treats are handed to children who go door to door.

  • Having a trunk-or-treat, where treats are handed out from the trunks of cars lined up in large parking lots.

  • Crowded costume parties held indoors.

  • Going to an indoor haunted house where people may be crowded together and screaming.

  • Going on hayrides or tractor rides with people who are not in your household.

  • Using alcohol or drugs, which can cloud judgment and increase risky behaviors.

  • Traveling to a rural fall festival that is not in your community if you live in an area with community spread of COVID-19.

And here are the CDC guidelines for celebrating Día de los Muertos safely during the pandemic.

Lower risk Day of the Dead activities:

  • Preparing traditional family recipes for family and neighbors, especially those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and delivering them in a way that doesn’t involve contact with others.

  • Playing music in your home that your deceased loved ones enjoyed.

  • Making and decorating masks or making an altar for the deceased.

  • Setting out pillows and blankets in your home for the deceased.

  • Joining a virtual get-together celebration.

Moderate risk Day of the Dead activities:

  • Having a small group outdoor, open-air parade where people are distanced more than 6 feet apart.

  • Visiting and decorating graves of loved ones with household members only, and keeping more than 6 feet away from others who may be in the area.

  • Hosting or attending a small dinner with local family and friends outdoors, where people stay more than 6 feet part.

Avoid these higher risk Day of the Dead activities:

  • Attending large indoor celebrations with singing or chanting.

  • Participating in crowded indoor gatherings or events.

  • Having a large dinner party with people from different households coming from different geographic locations.

  • Using alcohol or drugs, which can cloud judgment and increase risky behaviors.

The U.S., which accounts for just 4% of the world’s population, continues to lead in coronavirus case numbers and fatalities, according to data from Johns Hopkins University and the New York Times.

Follow MarketWatch’s coronavirus coverage here.

This article was originally published on Sept. 22, and has been updated with new spending data and trick-or-treating tips closer to Halloween.

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