It’s the season for all things spooky, and you know what people in my line of work think is really scary? A COVID-19 superspreader at a crowded costume party! Boo!
While many epidemiologists like me are currently living out a horror movie version of their careers, we’re also trying to figure out how to make normal life work in a world that seems upside-down. I am also a mom, and Halloween is my favorite holiday. I love the creativity. I love that I can be anything I want for a day with no risk and no commitment. In years past, I have dressed up as the Wicked Witch of the West, the worm from Labyrinth, Luna Girl from PJ Masks, and queen of the zombie prom. So I’m here with good news: Halloween is not canceled.
But like all things 2020, it’s going to have to be a little different this year. There is a very real possibility that kids, young adults, and older adults could get COVID-19 along with their candy if we’re not careful about handling the parties, parades, and trick-or-treat fun. Back-to-school for both K–12 schools and college campuses has demonstrated very clearly that children and young adults can and do catch and transmit COVID-19.
Fortunately, we now know a lot more than we did in March. We know that the largest risks are from sharing the same air as other people, especially indoors, and that avoiding crowds, wearing a mask over our noses and mouths, and taking the fun outdoors are the best ways to stay safe. Lucky for us, most Halloween traditions in the U.S. are highly compatible with those COVID-19 harm reduction basics. All you have to do is take the party outdoors, put on your mask, and cut the invitation list down to just a few people.
Within those guidelines, there are lots of ways to celebrate without adding to the list of COVID-19 cases in your community. Consider a walking party where guests parade down the street in costume, with plenty of space between groups. If your city allows it, apply for a block party permit and close your street to car traffic to give everyone extra space. You could also organize a reverse-parade: The kids (and grown-ups, who am I kidding?) can show off their costumes from the sidewalk while the neighbors and grandparents drive by and toss candy. Have a flash mob in the park and do the “Thriller” dance—just leave plenty of space between the undead. With masks, distancing, and staying outdoors, you can visit a pumpkin patch or even have a few friends over to carve pumpkins. Have a neighborhood pumpkin-carving contest with prizes. Create a photo-op Halloween scene on your stoop so families can stop by one at a time and make memories. Have a virtual scary movie night with your BFFs using Netflix Party or virtual group play the murder hotel themed Jackbox game, Trivia Murder Party 2.
Start planning now for costumes with masks that cover mouths and noses. (The grown-ups should wear masks, too, costume or standard.) It’s never been a better year to dress up as a surgeon, a mummy, or a superhero. Maybe this is your year to finally go all-in on an Iron Man costume.
But really, any costume is compatible with a mask, from Hermione to Bob Ross. If you have a hopeful Disney princess, break out the fabric glue and bedazzle that mask, princess-style. Surely there is a way to get Rapunzel’s highly versatile hair to serve as a face covering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a typical costume mask is not a substitute for a cloth mask, but as long it’s made of two layers of tightly woven fabric that fits over your mouth and nose, it’s OK.
Be sure to test-drive the kids’ costumes before the big night because bulky masks that cover the whole face tend to end up in a coat pocket. Take a standard, comfortable nose-mouth mask along just in case.
Keep your trick-or-treating group small and keep your distance. Don’t bunch up with people outside your existing COVID-19 bubble. We usually see a lot of kids forming big groups in our neighborhood, but this year, that’s not a good idea. If there’s a line, just move along to the next door. Keep your distance from the people handing out candy, too. I’ve seen some clever ideas for making no-contact treat collection part of the costume. Your little fisherman or butterfly catcher could easily carry a net with a long handle, for example.
No candy eating on the road. We don’t want to spread anything more than spooky fun, and having slobbery, sticky hands can undermine that goal. Definitely wash your hands when you get home, but there’s no need to wipe off every piece of candy individually. Surface transmission has not been found to be a common mode of COVID-19’s spread, so good hand hygiene should do the trick.
If you’re staying home to hand out candy, you need to wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth, hand out candy using tongs or a grabber, and stay outdoors while you do it. In addition to the better airflow, being outside will reduce doorbell-touching and queues of children at your doorstep. If you can, make a one-way path for kids to approach your door, and don’t let kids choose their own candy; we don’t want them touching the treats, and anyway, it slows them down. You could also put together goodie bags and have them available grab-and-go while you enjoy greeting neighbors from a safe distance. If you can’t do these minimum safety precautions, that’s OK—turn off your porch lights and sit it out this year.
I’d love to see neighborhoods banding together for contact-free trick-or-treat, or individuals putting up signs to signify that they have no-contact treat delivery. You can also get more creative. Dress up as a detective, create a crime scene on your stoop, tape it off with caution tape, and then toss candy out from within your mise-en-scène. Build a candy delivery chute from a length of PVC pipe and deliver precise doses of candy to the children from afar. Dress as a medieval knight and build a small candy catapult. Personally, I am going to build a parade float in my front yard, dress as a pageant queen, and throw candy off of the float. Yes, seriously. I’m going as Miss Information. And I’d be honored to learn you stole my idea. Tossing candy will mean that kids need to be able to find it easily, so be sure your lighting is good.
If trick-or-treat seems too hard to manage (or has been canceled by your local authorities), do a Halloween scavenger hunt around the neighborhood, spotting items on your list from a distance. Or do a Halloween hunt within your own home, hiding treats for the kids to find in the style of an egg hunt.
Unfortunately, that packed, debauched costume party your ex-roommate throws every year is a hard no. You can double down on the wild party next year, after we’ve all been vaccinated, OK?
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.