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Pandemic Puts Trick-Or-Treating Traditions In Jeopardy; Health Experts Weigh In

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Federal, state and local public health authorities have released guidelines for Halloween that will change traditional trick-or-treating etiquette.

A hot debate in local mom groups on Facebook recently was over how parents plan to let their kids celebrate Halloween this year. Will trick-or-treating be yet another tradition upended by the pandemic?

Public health officials say it doesn’t have to be.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and local health departments have issued recommendations in recent weeks about how to minimize risks of contracting or spreading the coronavirus while trick-or-treating.

Some parents, like Shanna Niewig, say they are determined to find ways to celebrate this scary season. She and her neighbors in O’Fallon, Missouri, typically go all out for the holiday with hayrides, spookily decorated yards and loads of candy.

“People bring carloads of kids to the neighborhood,” she said. “It's a huge deal for us.”

But this year, Halloween will look different on Niewig’s block as she and her neighbors take recommended steps to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Public health guidance

Advice from the CDC last month included leaving individually wrapped bags of candy for trick-or-treaters to pick up rather than allowing kids to ring doorbells and take fistfuls of candy from bowls.
Personally handing out candy to trick-or-treaters puts people at high risk for being exposed to the coronavirus, the CDC said. But even goodie bags, the agency noted, present a moderate risk for being exposed to the coronavirus.

The Illinois Department of Public Health released safety guidelines last month that discouraged trick-or-treating but conceded that many still plan on participating in the holiday tradition. The department said that if people do go out, they should wash their hands before eating their bounty of Halloween candy.

Trick-or-treaters also should bring hand sanitizer, practice social distancing and wear face coverings, Dr. Fred Echols, St. Louis Department of Health director, said Thursday.

“COVID-19 has been really stressful for us all, so this can be a break to really take a breather from the stresses of the pandemic, but we have to do so safely,” Echols said.

Guidance from St. Louis and St. Louis County also includes having all block parties and haunted houses submit safety plans to their respective health departments.

People should avoid large gatherings and trick-or-treat in groups with their household members only, said Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

“As long as people follow the rules with social distancing, wearing masks, things like that. I mean, it’s no different than people sort of walking around the park or any other place outdoors,” he said.

Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
Johnnie Brock's, a popular Halloween store in St. Louis, has seen children's costume sales start to increase in the past couple of weeks, despite a overall decrease in sales because of the pandemic.

Parents consider risks

Granite City resident Sarah Anne Rennie said she expects trick-or-treaters to show up on Halloween night and is comfortable with the risk of handing out candy.

“I’m trying to put myself from the point of view of the parents who are going out with kids, going around and finding a lot of dark porches and a lot of disappointment,” she said.

For other parents, celebrating this year just isn’t worth the chance of catching the coronavirus. Middle school teacher Emily Hardee says her 3-year-old son won’t be going trick-or-treating at all this year.

“I don't think he'll be scarred for life missing one Halloween,” she said. “So we just kind of want to limit our exposure, I see approximately 120 students. So I think about that a lot, if I were to test positive.”

A lot of adults seem to be weighing those risks.

Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
Ed Brock owns Johnnie Brock's Dungeon in south St. Louis and has seen a 25% decrease in sales this year.

Johnnie Brock Dungeon Party Warehouse owner Ed Brock has seen a 25% decrease in sales at his Halloween store this year compared to last year. The biggest drop has been in adult costume sales, since many people are canceling their Halloween parties, he said. Adult costumes typically make up the bulk of Brock’s sales.

But he says business is slowly picking back up as the holiday nears. He’s seen upticks in sales of decorations and children’s costumes in recent weeks.

“Any way I slice it or dice it, it’s not going to add up to last year's sales numbers,” Brock said. More than half of Brock’s Halloween sales are in the week before Oct. 31 in a normal year.

“People, I think, they are really wanting Halloween,” Brock said.

Are events safe?

Traditional Halloween events, including trunk-or-treat events and parades, have largely been altered or canceled. Edwardsville canceled its nearly century-old Halloween parade, but St. Charles is still hosting its annual Legends and Lanterns on Main Street.

For small organizations, scheduling safe holiday events during the pandemic can be overwhelming.

“We just weren't sure how to safely handle something with like a bunch of kids,” said Brittany Nelson, event chair of the Benton Park neighborhood association. The group called off its trunk-or-treat event in recent weeks.

Instead, Nelson is planning a neighborhood house decorating contest.

“We don't need to cancel Halloween by any means,” she said. “But I think the events that we do have need to be safe for everyone.”

‘Just want to keep something normal’

A survey from the National Retail Federation found 148 million U.S. adults say they still plan on celebrating this year. That’s nearly 24 million fewer adults than last year.

Some, like Rashida Williams, still don’t know what they’re going to do this year. The Ferguson resident is undecided if she will take her three school-age kids trick-or-treating. Regardless of what she settles on, she’s hoping to salvage what traditions she can this year.

“It’s been rough for these kids being at home and not really being able to go on vacation and stuff like that," she said. "And I kind of just want to keep something normal, even if it’s just us dressing up in the house and having our own little Halloween party.”

Williams’ daughter, Mackenzie is 11 years old and plans on dressing up as the Disney character Maleficent. She said she wasn’t too bummed when her parents suggested she stay in.

“It will be disappointing, like getting your reactions from people,” she said of showing off her outfit. “But I could still post on social media.”

In this frightening year, showing off a costume to friends is at least one tradition left intact.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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