The candy, trick-or-treating and general magic of Halloween for kids, their families and, really, almost everyone, has been one of the constants of American life for decades. And that is exactly why public health experts are nervous in this year of COVID-19.
“I’m worried,” said Sheri Belafsky, a UC Davis Health physician in the Department of Public Health Sciences and the director of the Medical Surveillance Program. “You go into stores and see rows of candy that are saying, ‘This is like any other Halloween.’ But it isn’t, and we can’t pretend it is.”
Belafsky and others fear gatherings and trick-or-treating could create large surges in transmissions of COVID-19, much the way the Memorial Day weekend and Fourth of July became almost national super-spreader events.
Although a number of trusted sources, ranging from UC Davis Health to Sacramento County health officials to the American Academy of Pediatrics, have provided big lists of safe and fun alternatives for celebrating Halloween, the lure of trick-or-treating will be hard to contain.
“There’s nothing like it for kids,” Belafsky said. “There’s the thrill of the hunt and of not knowing what surprises you’re going to find at the next house. When my kids were young, I tried offering them candy I had bought. They weren’t interested. They wanted to go door-to-door.”
The allure of Halloween
In this year of COVID-19, Halloween seems to be even more seductive. So do the lawn decorations, ads, TV shows and, of course, those candy displays. News stories and social posts quote plenty of people who say they’re worn down by COVID fatigue and just want to have some fun or to let their kids enjoy the night. This makes it all the harder to sound notes of caution.
— California Department of Public Health
“We don’t want to sound preachy,” said Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, “but the safest thing would be not to go out at all. Many people may know that, but they don’t want to hear it because they’re exhausted. And Halloween is fun. Everyone wants some fun.”
Blumberg filmed a video for UC Davis Health with tips for a safer Halloween. The core message says everyone from adults to kids should socially distance, wear real masks under or over their costumes (Halloween masks have slits for breathing and offer little protection) if they go out, and socialize only with their own households.
“I have real concerns about whether it is feasible to go house to house with really excitable kids and stay socially distant and safe,” Blumberg said. “I just don’t see that happening. So one way is to celebrate at home with costumes, foods, a candy hunt and Halloween movies. It won’t be the same, but it will still be fun and it will keep your family and your community safe.”
California strongly discourages trick-or-treating.
State health officials added their voices to the warnings about Halloween this week. Although there is no outright ban on trick-or-treating, the newly revised Guidance for Safer Halloween and Dia de los Muertos Celebrations during COVID-19 makes the state’s position clear: don’t do it.
“To protect yourself and your community, you should not go trick-or-treating or mix with others outside allowed private gatherings this Halloween season,” the state guidelines say.
Besides the large risk of transmitting COVID-19, the household mixing and general chaos on doorsteps as kids jostle for candy would making tracing infections nearly impossible. In effect, the state said, those kinds of doorstep gatherings are not permitted under COVID-19 guidelines.
California does allow small gatherings with people from three households maximum, and urges people to keep the groups relatively small, stay six feet apart, wear masks and hold the gatherings outside with a two-hour limit.
Making the message heard
How do you get across an unpopular but important public health message? Carefully and honestly, Belafsky said.
“We’re saying this will take some sacrifice,” she said. “We have to restrain ourselves. That doesn’t always resonate because it’s not what we want to hear.”
That, in fact, is the best point to emphasize.
“This message isn’t sexy,” Belafsky said. “It comes down to reminding people to think about others. In the spirit of concern for our neighbors, out of a generosity of thinking about our families, extended families, friends, co-workers and everyone else, we need to delay our own fun.”
It’s also a message to offer to children who might be disappointed about a subdued Halloween this year.
“It’s what I tell my own kids,” Belafsky said. “We want to be part of the solution in this pandemic. We want to help get all our lives back to normal. We want to be able to see our friends again. We can do that by being as careful as we can now. This won’t be my favorite Halloween, but a lot of people will be safer if we stay home.”
Some reasons for optimism
— Sheri Belafsky
“Go back a few years when we were giving kids a lot of safety warnings about Halloween,” Belafsky said. “We said, ‘Walk in groups, go out with parents, don’t accept candy that isn’t store wrapped,’ and lots more. We can do the same thing for COVID-19. We can say, ‘You can still have fun, it’s just going to take some effort.’”
Blumberg said it may take 2-4 weeks – through one or two incubation periods – to get a good read on whether COVID-19 infection rates spike because of Halloween or if the cautions were heard.
And at least some people are hearing them already, he said.
“I’ve seen skeletons on display wearing masks,” Blumberg said. “So that’s a good message.”