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We Asked Health Experts About the Safest Methods for Trick-or-Treating in 2020

From scavenger hunts to hurling candy from your porch, here’s what they had to say

Plastic jack-o-lantern trick-or-treat bucket with a face mask covering the lower half of its face.
This jack-o-lantern better pull that face mask up over its nose.
Photo: DavidCarpio/Shutterstock

Spooky season may have arrived, but thanks to the pandemic, many of Halloween’s most time-honored traditions are off limits this year, from crowded costume parties to screaming in terror inside haunted houses, according to a COVID-19 guide to upcoming holidays from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But what about trick-or-treating, objectively the most vital component of our kiddified, commercialized, modern-day interpretation of All Hallows’ Eve? Unfortunately, the CDC advises against the “higher risk” activity of conventional door-to-door trick-or-treating, as well as the parking lot car trunk adaptation known as “trunk-or-treat.” In fact, the safest activities on the list are all pretty much confined to the home, the same place you have likely been stuck with your kids for the past six months.

But still, parents might say, there must be some way to fulfill the true objective of Halloween: uniting children in flammable costumes with pumpkin-shaped buckets of mass-produced candy. In an attempt to address that plea, Eater asked public health experts to assess the risks of trick-or-treat modifications and alternatives that some households may be considering.

As you peruse this list, it’s important to note that there is no one blanket consensus, and there is no version of trick-or-treating that is risk free. While fomite transmission — that is, spread via contaminated surfaces such as candy — is possible and should be guarded against, the greatest risk comes from close proximity to people who exhale infectious droplets, per the CDC. There’s less risk when face masks are involved, but a lot depends on how people wear their masks (over the nose, folks!), says Amanda Valyko, the director of infection prevention and epidemiology for Michigan Medicine. To that end, avoiding crowds remains vital, according to experts.

But despite the inherent risks involved in venturing outside with other people, Keri Althoff, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that families don’t have to automatically discount any Halloween fun. “We have to recognize that trick-or-treating is an outdoor activity, which is fantastic,” she says. “It is important we celebrate these holidays, it’s important that we have fun, even in a pandemic. But we have to do it safely.” That means wearing masks, maintaining space, avoiding touching your face without washing or sanitizing your hands first, and above all, always keeping in mind your local transmission risk and unique circumstances.

Regular door-to-door trick-or-treating, as long as everyone wears face masks

Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine: Moderate risk. Too many kids crowded together passing one another on the streets. Parents are outside with all of these kids and will be interacting with one another.

Amanda Valyko: Coming into close proximity to a large number of people is a high risk activity. There is quite a bit of variability in how people wear their mask, so improper mask wearing would pose a higher risk.

Leaving a bowl of candy outside for trick-or-treaters

MC: Moderate risk. Safer for the homeowner, same issue for kids who are crowded together and the adults out with them.

AV: High potential for cross contamination with many people reaching into the same candy bowl.

Keri Althoff: Having a bowl that is farther away from your front door could keep the trick-or-treaters there. Hopefully, if it’s slower in your neighborhood, you shouldn’t run the risk of crowding. But if it isn’t slow … I’m more worried about people gathering around a bowl of candy. My kids see candy and run for it, and it’s like, ‘Wait, there are kids already up there. Wait your turn, stand back.’ That’s what I’m worried about.

Leaving a bowl of candy outside for trick-or-treaters, accompanied by a hand sanitizing station and instructions for everyone to sanitize their hands before reaching into the bowl

MC: Moderate risk. Assuming kids are wearing gloves (a necessity in our colder climate), the risk is no different than the bowl alone. Setting up hand sanitizer slows the progress from the crowded bowl back to the street. Faster is better. Save the sanitizer.

AV: High potential for cross contamination; there is no way to know if trick-or-treaters would adhere to instructions.

KA: Not everybody is going to use it before they put their hands in your bowl. I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation. But I do think having hand sanitizer out there next to your bowl of candy will be appreciated by both parents and kids alike.

Leaving a trick-or-treat table on the driveway, laid out with individual gift bags or cups of candy for kids to pick up

MC: Low/moderate risk. Get kids to grab and go, fast, so they don’t congregate.

AV: Moderate risk. Good to keep things individual — you never know who is going to touch items — but this seems like a reasonable idea, particularly in a setting of knowing your neighbors and planning in advance.

KA: I don’t know a lot of families who necessarily have the resources for individual gift bags or cups of candies right now. I think individually wrapped candies from the grocery store are fine as well.

A bad illustration of a hand throwing candy at a trick-or-treater’s jack-o-lantern bucket, from a distance of six feet.
A nice arc to some socially distanced candy distribution.

Dispensing candy from a distance of at least six feet, whether by throwing the candy at trick-or-treaters from the doorway, firing candy from a slingshot or T-shirt cannon, etc.

MC: Low risk for COVID, high risk for projectile injuries.

AV: Crafty, but seems like while you might not share COVID-19 germs, you might injure someone. The person throwing the candy would have to be mindful not to cross contaminate, for example by touching their nose/mouth and then touching candy.

KA: Just make sure they’re not going to hurt anyone. Don’t fire those at people! But I do think that ingenuity is neat.

Using a remote-controlled car or drone to dispense candy to trick-or-treaters from a distance of at least six feet

MC: Low risk for COVID. But likely to attract quite a crowd due to the innovation.

AV: Very creative. Mitigates risk of being in close proximity to others. Potential for many people touching the drone/car when removing the candy, and the person providing candy would have to be careful not to cross contaminate.

KA: I would love to see something like that. If you’re going to create something that will draw a crowd, just make sure that you know what you’re going to say … if people start to crowd, like, “Let’s all keep a bit more distance between us.” Or even put little signs in your yard that say, “Please remember to keep space between yourself and others.”

Building a candy chute leading from home to the end of the stoop — like the kind designed by this Ohio man or by this Reddit user — or devising a kind of fishing line/clothesline caddy contraption to ferry candy from home to sidewalk, like the kind designed by this Reddit user

MC: Low risk for COVID. But sure to attract a crowd.

AV: Similar to the remote-controlled car or drone. Similar to above. Would also need to be careful that people retrieving candy remain socially distanced.

KA: I do love the candy chutes. I love the innovation there in all of those contraptions. Again, the space that you’re creating between yourself and others is the key safety feature there.

A bad illustration of green grass with Kit Kats on flower stems emerging from the ground.
Kit Kats growing nicely in the yard.

Scattering candy around the yard for trick-or-treaters to pick up, optionally set up like candy flowers in a garden or gravestones in a cemetery

MC: Low risk. Spread it out and clearly mark it so that kids can get it without bumping into one another.

AV: Risk of person scattering the candy cross contaminating it, but as long as trick-or-treaters are limited such that they remain socially distanced, contact risk would be less.

KA: I was thinking about throwing a bed sheet on my lawn and sprinkling individually wrapped candies on there. Throw it in your yard, or use a white bed sheet … or have a way to light it up … so that people can see it as it gets a little darker. That kind of stuff is helpful just to make sure you’re not creating a space where people would want to crowd.

Scattering candy around the neighborhood, like a socially distanced Easter egg hunt

MC: Low to moderate risk if the hiding places are not really hidden, and it’s made clear that kids don’t need to run to the same spot.

AV: Similar to previous activity.

Reverse trick-or-treat: kids stand in their yards while adults drive past and toss candy from the car window, similar to parades

MC: Lowest risk. Great idea.

AV: Potential cross contamination of candy.

A bad illustration of a house’s front door with a QR code taped to it.
Trick-or-treat, Venmo or PayPal?

Displaying a QR code for Venmo, PayPal, etc. in front of the house so that trick-or-treaters’ parents can request $1 instead of receiving candy

MC: Low risk, but no fun.

AV: As long as trick-or-treaters don’t congregate, minimal risk.

Skipping trick-or-treat to instead organize an in-person candy swap with any other families or friends within the same coronavirus “bubble”

MC: Moderate to high risk. No bubble is “risk free.” Families work and have colleagues. Families commute. The “bubble” can generate a false sense of security.

AV: If they are already people that you interact with, it would be no different than your usual/daily risk.

KA: The bubbles or “pods” are as safe as the people who are participating in them. The way you have to think about bubbles is: the person or family with the highest-risk exposures, that is the risk you take on, being a member of that bubble. If you’re comfortable in that bubble and you have a good agreement with everybody in that pod or bubble, then enjoying a Halloween celebration within that bubble is just as safe as what it would be to have your kids in that bubble working with the tutor together, or playing outside together, or whatever it may be. The bubble situation is way bigger than Halloween; it’s a way to balance the risk of becoming infected or infecting others with the need to have social and emotional contact with others.

Just buying candy for one’s own kids, who will not be allowed out on Halloween

MC: Low risk for COVID, high risk for dental cavities.

AV: Least risky. I am thinking of getting a piñata for my little ones.

KA: If you live in a neighborhood that you anticipate will be very crowded on Halloween, maybe choose to turn your lights off, take your kids into the backyard or the basement, and watch scary movies, or do an Easter egg hunt-inspired Halloween treat hunt. Something different that keeps you and your family away from the crowds.