Kids across Canada have a burning question for their parents this week: Are we going trick-or-treating?
Like every other aspect of life, Halloween will play out differently as public health and infectious disease experts put measures in place to curb the pandemic.
Across the country, health officials are asking people to scale back and take precautions while trick-or-treating.
In Ontario, medical officers of health are advising those living in the hardest hit areas —Toronto, Ottawa, Peel Region and York Region — to skip door-to-door trick-or-treating altogether and celebrate Halloween at home. New Brunswick is advising the same for its level orange (highest-transmission) areas.
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Infectious disease specialists urge everyone to follow their local public health guidelines, but many agree that out of all the holidays, Halloween is one that can be done safely if people follow the already well-known basics to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s the same basic principle,” Dr. Caroline Quach, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist and medical microbiologist at CHU Sainte-Justine in Montreal, told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of the CBC podcast The Dose.
“The goal is really to be able to maintain safe distancing and also to aim to trick-or-treat with your own household.”
LISTEN | The Dose: What can I do to make Halloween safe this year?
The Dose18:10What can I do to make Halloween safe this year?
Based on Quach’s expertise, as well as advice from provincial public health ministries, here are the answers to some common questions about Halloween this year.
What are the highest-risk aspects of door-to-door trick-or-treating?
Every close encounter (within two metres) of someone outside your household who is not wearing a mask carries some degree of risk, Quach said. That risk increases if you go inside.
The largely outdoor nature of Halloween traditions is what helps make it relatively safe — so it’s important not to go into anyone’s home.
What’s the safest way to trick-or-treat?
As with any outing during the pandemic, if you or your child is feeling ill — even with mild symptoms — stay home.
Kids should trick-or-treat only with their parents, siblings, or whoever lives in their household. This is not the year to go out in big groups. Stay at least two metres away from other trick-or-treaters and their families.
Trick-or-treaters — and the adults accompanying them — should wear non-medical masks or face coverings.
Halloween costume masks don’t count because they’re entirely ineffective at preventing virus transmission.
Costume masks actually do the opposite, since they have holes in the nose and mouth areas, Quach said.
Some health experts say that a child can wear a costume mask over their COVID-19 protection mask, as long as they can see and breathe properly. But Quach says pediatric specialists prefer makeup to Halloween masks even in non-pandemic times because children can see better.
Bring hand sanitizer. Your child doesn’t necessarily need to use it between every house if they’re only holding their candy bag and touching nothing else, Quach said.
But make sure your child uses hand sanitizer “after touching touch-points like doorbells or railings,” Alberta Health’s online Halloween tip sheet says.
Even better, it says, is for children to knock instead of ringing the doorbell, or stay two metres back from the door and call out “trick-or-treat!”
Finally, stay in your own neighbourhood or community to limit the number of people you come in contact with.
What’s the safest way to hand out Halloween candy?
First, if you are feeling even mildly ill or are in self-isolation or quarantine after travel or awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test, you’ll have to sit this Halloween out. Do not hand out candy.
Wear a mask or face covering.
Only one person in a household should be handing out candy, Quach said.
Interactions with trick-or-treaters should be brief — about 30 seconds, she said. This isn’t the year for long conversations or for kids to sing or chant.
Avoid having multiple kids taking candy from a large bowl or bag, she said. Consider putting candies into small bags to hand to each child.
Get creative with physical distancing while handing out candy — you can pass candy down from your porch on a hockey stick, or slide it down a pipe. You may also want to put candy out on the porch in individual bundles so each trick-or-treater can grab their own while keeping two metres away.
And remember to wash your hands often.
What about apartment or condo buildings?
Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, has raised the fact that a good portion of the city’s population live in condominiums or apartments as a risk factor for door-to-door trick-or-treating.
Keep all trick-or-treating “outside, please,” she said.
“The minute you go inside, where they might be more circulation, where you could bump into tons of people, where the ventilation in the hallway is not great, is not a good idea.”
If people in apartments or condos want to give out candy, Quach suggests setting up a large table with candy outside the building, where residents can physically distance from one another.
Should seniors avoid giving out candy?
Seniors are particularly vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19.
“You have to weigh the pros and cons,” Quach said. If the senior and trick-or-treaters are wearing masks and physical distancing, she thinks the risk is “minimal.”
New Brunswick’s health ministry is taking an extremely cautious approach.
“Anyone at higher risk should avoid participating in Halloween activities,” its online Halloween guide says. “This includes people with medical conditions (such as heart disease, high blood pressure, lung disease, diabetes, cancer), people with weakened immune systems from a medical condition or treatment, and older adults.”
But Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Health and University Health Network in Toronto, said it’s important to strike a balance. Halloween often brings a nice opportunity for older neighbours to interact with younger ones.
“I think for a lot of older people, this can be a little bit of a socialization highlight of their year,” he said.
Seniors who want to participate in Halloween should definitely take precautions, he said, such as wearing a mask, not letting anyone inside their home, passing candy from a distance with a hockey stick or putting it on the porch in between trick-or-treater visits.
A simple way to maintain distance is for the senior to have trick-or-treaters put their bags down and step back while they put the candy in to maintain distance, Sinha said.
“I am on the side of many who think that Halloween can be done safely,” he said. “As long as distance is maintained and we avoid touching each other and each other’s things, things can be done well.”
Kids and their parents should be mindful that seniors are vulnerable to COVID-19 and be sure to give them space, he said.
It’s also important to remember that it’s the senior’s decision whether or not they want to hand out candy this Halloween, Sinha said.
“There are going to be some older people who just don’t want to take the risk and so they may not want to participate this year,” he said. “We should respect an older person’s decision to not participate.”
What if I don’t feel safe handing out candy?
Some provinces, including Ontario and Alberta, have posters available on their websites that people can put on their door to let trick-or-treaters know, in a friendly way, that they aren’t participating this year.
There are also posters available on those websites for people who are participating that remind trick-or-treaters to wear a mask before coming to their door.
What safety measures should we take when we’re finished trick-or-treating?
When it’s time to call it a night, kids should go straight back to their own homes — no going over to friends’ houses to compare the loot.
“No mingling afterwards indoors,” Quach said. “We don’t want all those children back in one house.”
Kids and parents should also wash their hands before handling the candy.
What about Halloween parties?
That’s a no-go for both kids and adults this year.
“The reason why governments are trying to allow for trick-or-treating is for the younger children to have fun [safely],” Quach said. “Which should not mean that adults can get together and have a party, because that’s where transmission is going to happen.”
So in areas where we’re asked not to trick-or-treat, what are some alternatives?
Toronto Public Health offers a few ideas on its website, such as connecting online with others online and doing activities such as telling spooky stories, holding pumpkin decorating contests or getting dressed up and holding a virtual costume party.
The department also suggests parents set up a scavenger hunt so their children can find treats at home, a movie night, or having dinner in costumes.