The coronavirus pandemic has robbed most people of many of the things that make life fun — parties, gatherings, hugging — and holidays have been no exception to the list of casualties.
Halloween, however, remains a bit of a gray area in terms of whether it’s safe to celebrate. As one of the few holidays traditionally celebrated in large part outdoors, some revelers wonder if trick-or-treating is actually an activity children and their parents can safely participate in this year.
Most large Halloween celebrations statewide have been canceled, such as the annual Fright at the Fort at Fort Knox State Historic Site in Prospect and Bangor’s annual downtown trick-or-treating, both of which attract hundreds or thousands of people. But can a traditional neighborhood trick-or-treat — where people are outside, in small groups distanced from other groups, all wearing masks — really be that unsafe?
Nirav Shah, Director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that it doesn’t matter whether you’re the one handing out the candy, or you’re the one trick-or-treating — the risk of virus transmission to both is the same, even if each interaction is fleeting.
“By going door to door, you could receive a cumulative dose of the virus that at the end of the night is sufficiently large to cause COVID-19,” said Shah. “So it’s equal in terms of risk for both the parents who are answering the door, as well as the parents who are shepherding the kids along.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued guidelines for celebrating Halloween safely earlier this fall. Some of the events it classifies as low to moderate risk for virus transmission include pumpkin carving outdoors with neighbors and friends, small outdoor parties or haunted events in which people are masked and socially distant, and outdoor costume parades where each group is six feet away from each other.
The CDC does, however, classify traditional trick-or-treat or trunk-or-treat events — as well as indoor haunted houses and parties — as higher risk.
According to the Harvard Global Health Initiative, which has a color-coded map of the U.S. to help people decide the safety level for their county, five Maine counties are coded green, including Penobscot, Piscataquis, Oxford, Franklin and Somerset, meaning they have the lowest risk associated with virus spread. The rest of the state is coded yellow, meaning there is moderate risk.
Compared to states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Idaho and Utah, where much of the state is coded red, Maine and the rest of northern New England is relatively safe.
Some Halloween revelers have come up with novel ways to maintain social distancing while handing out candy. A popular option has been to create a “candy chute,” where you decorate a six-foot-long tube — two mailing tubes taped together, for example, or a length of wide plastic pipe — and send your candy down the chute into the trick or treater’s waiting receptacle.
The CDC suggested in its holiday guidance that people make individual goodie bags to place on a sanitized table or on the ground outside, at least six feet away from a residence, and allow trick-or-treaters to pick one up themselves.
The CDC also points out that costume masks are not a substitution for a face covering. Rubber, latex or vinyl masks typically have holes in them and are ineffective at reducing virus spread, and the CDC recommends that costume wearers forgo such masks in favor of a face mask that is themed to their costume.
Much of the decision-making surrounding whether or how to trick-or-treat this year comes down to how much risk an individual or family is willing to accept, both for children and for parents and other older adults, Shah said. A family with immunocompromised members or with older grandparents may not feel it is worth the risk to participate in trick-or-treating, while parents in their 30s with children under 10 may feel they can participate safely.
And, Shah noted, Halloween is still three weeks away, and a lot can change in that time frame. Though case rates in Maine might be relatively low right now, that could change in a matter of days.
“The first question is, ‘What’s your own family’s level of risk?’ And then, what are the activities that you feel like you really want to celebrate as part of your Halloween? Which of those are safer, and which are riskier?” Shah said. “When you index those two things together, there’s a bit of a sliding scale. But in the middle somewhere, there is a way that Halloween can be celebrated for every family.”