Trick or treat: Experts offer advice for Halloween in this year of COVID

October 05, 2020
A twilight image of children in costumes running around a suburban neighborhood trick or treating
Congregating with non-household members and taking treats from a communal bowl are among the concerns that trick-or-treating raises during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Yuting Gao via Pexels.

For parents across the nation, this October’s biggest question isn’t “What does my kid want to be for Halloween?” but “Will Halloween happen this year?”

The question opens up a whole lot of scary, said Michael Schmidt, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have each come out with recommendations that are dependent upon the rate of spread of COVID-19 in individual communities.

The safest course of action is to forgo trick-or-treating and group activities altogether in favor of alternatives like pumpkin decorating, virtual costume contests, spooky movie night or scavenger hunts at home, said Elizabeth Mack, M.D., a pediatric critical care specialist at MUSC Children’s Health and a spokeswoman for the AAP.

Although outdoor activities in general are safer than indoor activities because of the air flow, many fall traditions like trick-or-treating, trunk-or-treat, hayrides and apple picking end up with people bunched up in close proximity.

“Any kind of close contact with a non-household member is not the safest idea,” Mack said.

And the rate of surface transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, still hasn’t been completely worked out, Mack said.

It's possible for the virus to stick to surfaces for up three days, Schmidt said, although that varies according to the surface and how much mucus the virus is encased in – something to think about as kids reach into a communal candy bowl. And what kid, he asked, hasn’t eaten a piece of candy while mom or dad wasn’t looking?

But knowing how hard this year has been and that many will trick-or-treat anyway, Mack and Schmidt offered a few suggestions to lower the risk.

Mack suggested preparing individual goody bags of treats to be left on the porch so trick-or-treaters can “grab and go” while social distancing. The treat preparers should, of course, wash their hands often during the process of filling the goody bags.

Alternatively, people giving out candy should be masked and use tongs to distribute candy rather than allowing children to reach into the bowl to choose their own, Schmidt said.

Trick-or-treaters should be wearing masks that cover their noses and mouths.

“Luckily, masking goes pretty well with this holiday,” Mack said.

It’s important for the kids to maintain social distancing and to wash their hands, and Schmidt recommended hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available.

As we enter the fall and winter holiday seasons, Mack said one of the biggest concerns is what will happen when the usual uptick in respiratory viruses, like the flu and RSV, collide with the ongoing pandemic.

“We really worry those may be about to pick up, as would be their usual pattern, and what that can do to the people and resources,” she said.

This is the time to get a flu vaccination, she said. With rare exceptions, everyone over the age of 6 months should get an annual flu shot.

The Tri-county area’s rate of coronavirus transmission is currently low, according to the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Project, but Michael Sweat, Ph.D., has warned that the area could see a rise in cases in October if the three-month pattern of ups and downs seen elsewhere in the world holds true here as well. People have to be vigilant about maintaining hand washing, social distancing and masking in order to sustain the current low numbers, he said.