three girls are dressed as a banana split - complete with a large yellow banana made out of carboard that goes around all three of them and tall white hats that look like whipped cream
Halloween on Franklin Street is a beloved party for many students, but Duke physicians warn against large Halloween or Dia de los Muertos gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo credit: Cory Doctorow

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By Anne Blythe

Halloween is on the horizon and many families are wrestling with the idea of letting their kids deck themselves out in costumes and go trick-or-treating.

Pandemic fatigue has set in at many households, making many nostalgic for the days when the little kids could parade around as little Elsas, fearless Spidermen, witches, ghosts or Avengers on a mission to collect candy at every door.

To top it off, Halloween coincides with a full moon this year — the first time since 2001. It’s a rare blue moon, too, casting another touch of peculiarity to a year like no other.

Furthermore, Halloween is a holiday that celebrates masks. So should the kids go trick-or-treating?

Not the best idea, public health officials say. COVID-19 continues to haunt the country, spooking physicians and others by the sheer volume of new cases going up on public health department dashboards in North Carolina and elsewhere these past few weeks.

“This year, obviously, is different than past years,” said Emmanuel “Chip” Walter, chief medical officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute and a pediatric infectious disease specialist. “I think trick-or-treat will not be as normal this year. I understand everybody is kind of fatigued from COVID. I just have real concerns about trick or treat as usual, going door to door like we usually think about in large crowds of kids. I just think that’s a perfect way to potentially spread the virus.”

That doesn’t mean Halloween has to be ignored, Walter, Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke, and Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, associate professor in Family Medicine and Community Health at Duke, said during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday.

It could be a year to go off the beaten path with some alternate ideas. They suggested:

  • Pumpkin carving at home or perhaps with another small group if everyone is wearing masks and social distancing. Don’t forget the hand sanitizer. It’s important, especially with little ones helping.
  • Home scavenger hunts with candy either inside with family or in a yard where social distancing is possible.
  • A home movie night.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for Halloween activities. They do not rule out trick-or-treating but suggest a number of cautions for those who do.

  • Those giving out candy should avoid contact with trick-or-treaters, be outdoors when possible, and consider setting up stations with individually bagged treats for visitors.
  • Cloth face masks should be part of any costume or outing.
  • Stay at least 6 feet away from anybody not in your household.
  • Hand sanitizer should be used after touching objects or other people.

Not just a holiday for kids

“We sort of think of Halloween as a young kid event,” Wolfe said. “I have a young 5- and 7-year-old, they’re excited about this. But I think we should also reflect that for many towns, particularly college towns, for example, Halloween is a big teenager [event] and celebration in your 20s and beyond.”

Chapel Hill, for decades, has seen thousands of college-aged and adult costumed revelers flock to Franklin Street in the downtown area to parade in costumes, some very cleverly crafted.

Bar crawls in other towns and cities often draw large crowds of adults on a hunt for alcohol instead of candy.

Chapel Hill’s police chief and executive director of public safety said earlier this month that public health guidance on crowd size limitations would prevent the town from closing off Franklin Street for the annual Halloween gathering.

Though the event is not sponsored by the town, the street was barricaded and police officers monitored activities throughout the blocked off area to try to keep the festivities as safe as possible.

“We know Halloween on Franklin Street is a beloved annual gathering for so many in our community but crowds greater than 50 people go against the current public health guidance,” Chris Blue, the police chief, said in a statement posted to the town website. “As a Chapel Hill native, I, too, am disappointed that this annual tradition cannot happen. However, given the risks associated with such an event during the current pandemic, supporting a Halloween event in our downtown is not in the best interest of safety for our community.”

Nonetheless, as many college campuses report COVID-19 clusters among students in their late teens and early 20s, there are concerns that young adults might hold Halloween gatherings.

Walter and Wolfe stressed that anyone with COVID-19, even those who are asymptomatic, as well as those exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus within 14 days of Halloween should stay home and not participate in any activities.

“When we’ve looked on our college campus at the amount of virus that’s shed by different students, I am consistently shocked that some of the most prolific shedders of COVID are completely asymptomatic,” Wolfe said. “If there’s a message there, it’s please don’t fool yourself into believing you’re safe just because your symptoms aren’t there. If you know you’ve had an exposure … please take that seriously even if you’re feeling well. There’s a reasonable chance you can be infected and just not know.”

Walter added that gatherings with beer, wine or other alcoholic drinks could lead to COVID-19 outbreaks or clusters during a time when public health officials would like to tamp down virus spread.

“If you have COVID you really should follow recommendations and not be participating in any Halloween or trick or treat activities,” he said. “The biggest risk is social gatherings with older teens and young adults for Halloween festivities. Those are very, very common. If you potentially mix alcohol in with those kinds of events, you really risk a high-transmission, super-spreader type of event. I really would caution people against larger gatherings.”

As many college campuses report COVID-19 clusters among students in their late teens and early 20s, there are concerns that young adults might hold Halloween gatherings. Photo credit: Selena N. B. H.

How to celebrate Day of the Dead

The day after Halloween is the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, celebrated in many Latino households to honor deceased family and friends no longer here.

Traditional festivities include parades in public squares or trips to cemeteries, where graves are decorated with candles, flowers, fruits, nuts and other offerings. There is a lot of food and drink consumed, too.

The holiday, which began in Mexico and is celebrated throughout Latin America, is a time to recognize death as a part of life and share stories and memories of the dead with the living.

Martinez-Bianchi spoke in English and Spanish during the briefing with reporters about how such festivities should occur during a pandemic that has had a disproportionate impact on Latin communities in North Carolina and elsewhere.

“To make it safe, you want to avoid the larger gatherings,” Martinez-Bianchi said. “You want to prepare traditional family recipes. Play music in your home that your deceased loved ones enjoyed.”

In keeping with measures suggested for Halloween this year, Martinez-Bianchi recommended that families try to keep the festivities to family members they live with inside their own homes.

“You can work with your kids to make and decorate masks or make an altar,” Martinez-Bianchi said. “You can set out pillows and blankets in your home intended for your deceased to rest. You can join a virtual get-together.

If families go to cemeteries, they should mask up and distance themselves from others while there.

“The most important thing is to avoid high-risk activities during Day of the Dead,” Martinez-Bianchi said. “You don’t want to attend large, indoor celebrations with singing or chanting. Avoid having a large dinner party.”

Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.