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Spooky, Yet Safe: How To Celebrate Halloween During The COVID-19 Pandemic

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Cristobella Durrette
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Houston Public Media Intern
With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, public health officials are asking people to avoid traditional Halloween fun. But that doesn’t mean you have to skip the holiday this year.

Do the risks associated with COVID-19 mean you have to give up Halloween? Experts say no — but certain precautions are recommended.

This year has been frightening enough already. But now it’s Halloween, and the season is even spookier in 2020 as traditional activities carry the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

And with COVID-19 cases on the rise in Houston, the pandemic is forcing a change to trick-or-treating and other celebrations, due to the risk of viral spread.

To mitigate that spread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued Halloween health and safety guidelines, grouping activities into lower, moderate and higher risk based on potential for coronavirus transmission.

So do the risks associated with COVID-19 mean you have to give up Halloween? Experts say no — but certain precautions are recommended.

The CDC advises against higher-risk activities like classic trick-or-treating, or even “trunk-or-treat” events, where candy is passed out from car trunks.

"I think everybody needs to really think about what's going on in their community," said Jill Weatherhead, associate professor of tropical medicine and infectious diseases with the Baylor College of Medicine. "Certainly, if there is a lot of transmission happening at the community level, we should avoid trick-or-treating, crowds, large gatherings."

If you do plan to trick-or-treat this year, Harris County Public Health says people should bring hand sanitizer, stay six feet away from others and stand far from a house's front door.

Trick-or-treaters should also wear protective face coverings — a plastic or rubber Halloween mask does not provide sufficient gap-free protection.

"They're not made to really close the areas of your nose, around your mouth to limit particle spread, any kind of droplets that may come out," said Elizabeth Perez with Harris County Public Health. "They're kind of wonky, where they're not essentially made to fit snugly on an individual."

But even after kids return home, indirect contact transmission still poses a risk — though the CDC says that transmission from touching surfaces is extremely rare.

Still, Weatherhead said if parents are worried, they can simply wipe candy wrappers down with disinfectant, and kids can wash their hands after each time they touch the candy to minimize viral spread — or even put it on the shelf and wait.

"The other option, to not even take the risk, is to put it aside for a few days and let it sit without anybody touching it," Weatherhead said.

If you plan on giving out treats, prepare some goodie bags. But avoid anything homemade.

"Everything that you pass out to other individuals who are not in your household needs to be purchased and individual wrapped, and not made at your house," Weatherhead said. "That again will prevent that contact transmission that we're trying to avoid."

Besides trick-or-treating, other Halloween traditions like indoor costume parties and haunted houses also pose a higher risk. The crowded, boozy events with people talking and screaming could send virus particles into the air.

That was the message Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner delivered at a press conference earlier this week, when he asked Houstonians to forgo normal holiday activities and come up with new, socially distant ways of celebrating.

“In the haunted houses,” Turner said, “not only will you find the ghosts, but you will find the COVID-19.”

The CDC recommends shifting events to an open-air format with attendees staying socially distant and wearing cloth masks.

You can do an outdoor, open-air haunted forest or scary movie night with moderate risk, according to the CDC. However, the more people scream, the greater distance is needed for safe social distance: allow eight feet or more for a safe distance.

If you really want to stay safe, the CDC recommends planning virtual events, decorating your living space and dressing up. But even with the CDC's suggestions, Houstonians are finding new ways to celebrate the holiday safely.

This year, the Woodland Heights neighborhood pivoted their Halloween carnival, usually held at Travis Elementary, into a socially distanced scavenger hunt.

"We have about 25 homes in the neighborhood who have volunteered to host a clue," said carnival committee chair Christina Wilkerson. "People can do it via bike or in cars or walking."

One thing that will stay the same from previous years is their cause. Wilkerson said all funds raised will go to teachers and administrators for use in their classrooms at Travis.

"Last year, each teacher got about $800," Wilkerson said. "So it's a really big part of our community and showing respect for our teachers. We felt it was important to have a community building event, but also still be able to raise money for our teachers during this time.”

This article was updated to note that surface transmission of COVID-19 is extremely rare.

Houston Public Media provided this story.