Candy trees, backyard hunts: Time for new Halloween traditions, experts say

COVID-19 has made the spectre of Halloween a lot scarier, and raised debate about whether kids should be going trick-or-treating this year.

'You can still have some fun ... without the risk associated with going door-to-door,' says epidemiologist

Kids crowding doorways and shouting 'trick-or-treat!' could easily spread the coronavirus, health experts say. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

Should they go or should they stay?

COVID-19 has made the spectre of Halloween a lot scarier this year, and raised debate about whether kids should be going trick-or-treating.

Some health experts say it needs to go ahead, for the sake of kids' mental well-being — but it's time to think differently and create new traditions around the holiday.

"We shouldn't cancel Halloween at all, but do it in a more creative way to keep safe and not be part of the transmission chain," said Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan.

Kids have gone through a lot in the past seven months, with many cancellations and disappointments. Calling off Halloween would be another change that could impact their social well-being, said Cynthia Carr, a Winnipeg-based epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research Inc.

But going door-to-door to collect candy is definitely out, she said.

Kids should not go out in groups with friends, says Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

"From the health perspective, I'm not going to advocate going out and doing things to collect candy," she said.

Candy is "not great for us, anyway," said Carr, but there's more reason to advise against traditional trick-or-treating this year, as this could become a contact-tracing nightmare.

"What if … a week later we suddenly see a bunch of new cases? Now we've got a situation … where people have been all over the place mixing with people that we don't know.

"The new cases may have nothing to do with trick-or-treating at all, but it can add just another level for public health to figure out when trying to identify contacts."

Despite soaring case numbers in many parts of the country, no provincial government in Canada has entirely ruled out Halloween. Many have created guidelines for how to do it safer, such as using a costume prop — a broomstick or sword — to knock on doors.

Some guidelines suggest putting distance markers on the sidewalk to help maintain safe distancing, telling kids where to stand so they don't crowd doorways.

Carr wonders how well that will work. Kids typically rush the door and squeeze in like goldfish crowding the surface of a fish tank at feeding time.

If you're handing out the candy, you can't also manage crowd control, she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges people to avoid a door-to-door Halloween completely this year. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

While Muhajarine is OK with kids going door-to-door, he suggests they forgo the custom of heading out with groups of friends. A parent should accompany their own children and make sure they are distancing.

"Perhaps limit how long you are out this year. Maybe it's not a three-hour expedition this time," he said.

"Kids like going to the houses. It's a fun activity, and we shouldn't rob them of that."

But there are ways that can be done without the doorstep interaction, he said.

New traditions

One way of bypassing that would be to create pre-packaged bags of treats and loosely tie them to the branches of a tree.

"That way, they can come up and get their candy without any exchange and people can still enjoy watching the kids and their costumes," Muhajarine said.

"Some people don't like to come to the door every two minutes anyway, so this could be something new. There is the opportunity for things that might not have happened before."

Epidemiologist Cynthia Carr suggests holding a Halloween candy hunt in your own yard with a small group of kids. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Carr agrees the timing is ideal for the birth of new traditions. She suggests letting your kids invite a small group of friends over for activities, along the lines of a birthday party — but with a Halloween theme.

"Maybe do some baking — make a haunted gingerbread house, for example," she said, adding something outdoors, where the risk of transmission is lower, would be ideal.

"It would be great if you had a yard and people come and you have a little campfire and … maybe a candy hunt, like the Easter-egg hunt. They can be hidden in your backyard," she said.

"You can still have some fun and some of the festivities, without the risk associated with going door-to-door and getting a pillowcase full of candy you never eat anyway. It's different, but it's not disappointing."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States echoes Carr.

It urges people to avoid a door-to-door Halloween completely, as well as indoor costume parties or indoor haunted houses. It suggests an outdoor Halloween movie night or scavenger hunt for treats, limited to family or close friends.

The Public Health Agency of Canada hasn't taken a stand yet. A spokesperson said the agency "is currently working with partners and experts to develop guidelines for Halloween," with plans to post them on its website.

Manitoba gave the green light for trick-or-treating but encourages people to only do it with others from their own household. Provincial officials also suggest people consider alternatives, such as costume parades, haunted houses and corn mazes, provided physical distance is maintained.

Mask caution

Carr acknowledged the inequities in society that mean, for some people, those alternative celebrations aren't feasible and going door-to-door is the only option.

In that case, she stressed the importance of realizing a Halloween mask is not a substitute for cloth masks worn to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A Halloween mask is not a substitute for cloth masks worn to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

But safe masks can be incorporated into costumes by decorating them, Carr said, while cautioning against using stickers or paint, both of which could interrupt air flow.

She also suggests keeping an eye out for the kids and meeting them at the door so they needn't shout to get your attention. Yelling increases the chance of virus-carrying respiratory droplets.

People should also frequently clean handrails and doorbells.

"We know the virus is detectable [on surfaces], but we don't know how viable it is," Carr said. "But we have to put safety first."

Candy tubes and tongs

With multiple people coming to the door and touching areas around it, there is strong potential for the virus to make a ghostly appearance.

"There's numerous points of contact with trick-or-treating; they are brief interactions, but when you add it all together, can have a significant impact," Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, said ahead of the province releasing its guidelines.

The province advises people use tools such as tongs to hand out candies. Another option is attaching a tube to a stair railing and sliding candies to kids' bags, Carr said.

"It does allow for distance between the homeowner and the trick-or-treaters but it doesn't address the group waiting at the bottom. It's those choke points that we want to avoid."

Another idea is a grab-and-go table with pre-packaged bags of candies. Kids can walk up and take one and move on, making it a quicker option than the tubes, she said.

The Manitoba guidelines recommend against self-serve options like common candy bowls.

To be extra cautious, leave the kids' cache of candies a day or two to quarantine in the basement or garage, Carr said.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.


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