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

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 look forward to Halloween and it needs to happen — especially in a year where so much disappointment has occurred,” agreed Cynthia Carr, a Winnipeg-based epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research Inc.

“They’ve had many things they were anticipating or looking forward to that didn’t happen.”

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

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

While all that candy is usually “not good for you, anyway,” said Carr, there’s more reason to advise against it this year, as Halloween could become a super-spreader event for COVID-19, if not a contact-tracing nightmare.

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

“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,” Carr said. 

“The cases might have nothing at all to do with Halloween. They could be a coincidence — but what is the potential impact on public health?”

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 — like 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 be managing 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.

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