Ghouls, ghosts, and gobs of questions are haunting parents and guardians this Halloween. Some people are firmly in their two camps - "Yes, my kid is going trick-or-treating" or "Nope, it's not safe." Others still have questions as they try to make the best decisions for their families.
WVXU reached out to several health experts to discuss what's safe, what's risky, how to limit risks, and how to talk to your kids about whatever decision you've made.
What The Experts Recommend
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides guidance for marking holidays on its website. Holidays are divided into sections, detailing low risk activities - carving pumpkins or having a virtual costume contest - to high risk activities, like traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating.
The CDC recommends against traditional trick-or-treating and trunk-or-treating, instead advising lower-risk alternatives like pumpkin carving, house decorating, scavenger hunts, movie nights and virtual costume contests.
However, many states are allowing the tradition and have their own guidance. Ohio echoes the CDC's advice to avoid going to door-to-door, but if your children are going out, Ohio says to "limit the number of houses you visit and ask your children to stay as far from treat-givers as possible. For small children, consider holding the bag for them."
Victoria Richburg-Stephen, M.D., a pediatrician with TriHealth Physician Partners, follows CDC guidelines and is therefore recommending against traditional trick-or-treating. "However, they do offer an alternative form of trick-or-treating that is downgraded into a moderate risk," she says. "Things are altered just a bit to keep kids as well as their families and neighbors and communities safe."
The pediatrician says her patients' guardians have been asking about how to mark this Halloween.
"Parents are concerned this year about trick-or-treating just because you do have so much contact with different surfaces... And it's things you don't even think about, like ringing the doorbell, knocking on the door, touching the candy, going through haunted houses and screaming and yelling and shouting, which pushes a lot of the virus out in the air."
The CDC classifies indoor haunted houses and hay rides with strangers as high risk activities, by the way.
Richburg-Stephen says if you are going to go out, group sizes should be limited and it's best to stick to just a few homes, or only homes of people you know well. Be sure to leave space between your "pod" and other trick-or-treaters, she adds.
People handing out candy should avoid allowing children to reach into a community bowl, per the CDC. Other suggestions include lining up candy on porch steps or an outdoor table, or using some kind of creative method to safely distribute items at a distance.
"Parents and neighbors handing out candy should wear masks ... and use gloves," Richburg-Stephen says. "Instead of having (kids) come to the door, ring the doorbell or knock on the door, have the parent or the neighbor stand either outside the front door or meet-and-greet them at the end of the driveway or your yard so that they don't touch any surfaces."
She also likes the idea of providing a one-way route to and from your home, similar to what you see in some stores directing the flow of foot traffic to limit interactions. Doorbells, if they are touched, should be wiped down between visitors and trick-or-treaters should sanitize hands between houses, she says.
Ohio recommends wiping candy wrappers with sanitizing wipes when you arrive home and only eating factory-wrapped candies - no homemade treats this year. While the CDC maintains the coronavirus is primarily spread through respiratory droplets, lots of grubby hands digging into a communal candy bowl (which again, is highly NOT recommended) can add up, so taking this extra precaution may be helpful.
"Most parents tend to check their candy after kids come home from trick-or-treating, but I think you've got to go an extra mile and disinfect the candy," says Richburg-Stephen. "Get the sanitation wipes people use for groceries and to wipe down doorknobs and handles and chairs and doorbells - it's that extra added protection to kill the virus."
The rest of the advice is similar to what we've been hearing all along:
- wear a mask
- maintain six feet of distance
- wash hands frequently
- offer hand sanitation stations
- DO NOT go out if you may have been exposed to COVID-19
"Wearing masks and social distancing are musts at any time when dealing with someone who is not a household member," reminds Christine Stinson, executive director of the Wayne County Health Department in Richmond, Ind. "Traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating could be done safer if everyone is wearing a mask that is made to stop the respiratory droplets that are spreading the virus.
"Not just a Jason mask or a clown mask," she clarifies, "but a fitted mouth and nose covering. It is safer for the treater to take the candy and place it into the tricker's bag than to have a community bowl for everyone to reach into for candy."
Finally, if you do participate in higher risk activities, you should limit contact afterward for 14 days and monitor yourself for any symptoms.
How To Talk With Your Children About Halloween
Once you've made your decision, it's important to to help your children understand, and keep in mind that the guardians of their friends and classmates may have different views and rules so not all kids will be on the same page.
"It's important to talk to your kids and be direct and let them know where your stance is on this issue, and explain it in age-appropriate language," says Julie Sell-Smith, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist with Viewpoint Psychological Services. "The way you talk to a 5-year-old about this may be different than the way you speak to a 10-year-old."
Sell-Smith says children should be allowed to ask questions and know why a particular choice has been made. Guardians, she says, should be prepared to deal with the emotions associated with the decision.
"There may be anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment, confusion. Whatever your child is feeling, allow them to express those feelings because there have been many times this year that kids have experienced similar emotions around missed events."
She recommends using active listening - reflecting back the emotion that you just heard from your child. For example, "I hear you're saying you're really disappointed, and it's normal to be disappointed in this situation."
If your decision is not to allow traditional trick-or-treating, Sell-Smith recommends coming prepared with alternatives - many of which are similar to those recommended by the CDC - such as Halloween-themed scavenger hunts, a small party with people you're comfortable being around, carving pumpkins, Halloween crafts, movie nights, decorating face masks, drive-through Halloween events, or an online escape room.
Guardians who are allowing traditional trick-or-treating can also talk with their children about why their friends have different rules.
"Talk to your children openly and directly about the differences," says Sell-Smith. "Similarly to the situation about going to school, you might say, 'You're able to trick-or-treat this year, but your friends may not be able to safely do that, in the same way that you may be going to school and your friends may be having schooling online or remotely.'"
Have a safety plan and talk with your kids about it, too. Discuss what social distancing looks like while trick-or-treating, limit group sizes to a few kids that already interact with each other. Talk about the need to wash hands frequently and wear a mask. Sell-Smith suggests finding a way to incorporate a mask into your costume, like being a doctor or nurse.
"Prepare kids for the possibility that there will be fewer trick-or-treaters out and about this year and maybe even fewer people handing out candy," Sell-Smith adds. "You may want to limit the number of houses that you visit or stick with your immediate neighborhood only. Warn children that they might not get the 10-pound haul this year like in previous years."
Finally, as it starts to get colder and activities move indoors where distancing and safety precautions become more significant, it's important for children and adults to understand they may experience feelings that challenge them.
"There may be some fear and anxiety about being in these situations with larger groups since this isn't something that they've experienced for quit a while," says Sell-Smith.
Additional Tips For People Handing Out Candy
The State of Ohio offers these recommendations to people who wish to hand out candy. Official guidance from Kentucky and Indiana is much the same. These are in addition to the standard guidance about hand hygiene, mask wearing, and maintaining distance.
- For trick-or-treating, reach out to neighbors to discuss ways to ensure 6-foot social distancing, how candy can most safely be distributed, and the need for face coverings.
- Refrain from having children select their own treats from a bowl/common container or set up a hand-sanitizing station.
- Consider lining up individually wrapped goodie bags on porch steps, a table in the driveway, or the edge of the driveway or yard with a sign asking children to take only one. Or use other creative ways to distribute treats, such as using a candy "slide" made of PVC pipe, or hanging treats from a wall or fence.
- If you are preparing goodie bags, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after preparing the bags.
This story was first published Oct. 12, 2020.