Halloween and coronavirus: Can we go trick or treating?

By Becky Morton and Doug Faulkner
BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

From trick or treating to apple bobbing, the traditions of 31 October aren't things you would immediately consider to be "Covid-safe". So does that mean Halloween is cancelled?

The answer kind of depends on where you live.

In Scotland, trick or treating - or guising - has been strongly discouraged by the government, with Deputy First Minister John Swinney telling parents going door-to-door "brings an additional and avoidable risk of spreading the virus".

"Our clear advice for families is to avoid it," he said.

And with people banned from meeting other households indoors, Halloween parties are also definitely off the cards.

In Wales, Halloween falls during a 17-day firebreak lockdown, meaning meeting people from other households, either indoors or outdoors, is not allowed.

"We are asking people to stay home during the firebreak period to slow the spread of coronavirus and help save lives," a government spokesman said.

Northern Ireland's Public Health Agency (PHA) has said it is important people continue to follow the restrictions, which prevent meeting indoors with other households and restrict the number of people who can meet outside to 15.

Dr Gerry Waldron, head of health protection at PHA, said apple bobbing was a definite no-no, and asked people not to trick or treat.

Image source, AFP

So what about in England? Well, it depends on what tier your local area is in.

Downing Street has suggested trick or treating can take place as long as the local restrictions are followed.

The prime minister's official spokesman this week said: "The rules are those which apply to household mixing in general and what that means in practice is if you are in a very high alert level (Tier 3) then you cannot mix with other households indoors or in private outdoor spaces.

"If you're in a high Covid alert level (Tier 2) then the rule of six applies in private gardens and outdoor spaces but households must not mix indoors.

"And in terms of the medium alert level (Tier 1), you can meet indoors and outdoors in groups of no more than six people."

He added people would have to use their common sense.

The Cabinet Office said people should check which restrictions applied to them, but said it was not planning to give specific guidance on Halloween.

In the US, where Halloween is big business, some cities have already said traditional trick or treating is not recommended. And the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has outlined guidance on how risky Halloween activities are, ranging from lower-risk activities to higher risk ones.

The safer activities, it said, included having a movie night with your family, carving pumpkins with your own household or going on a socially-distanced scavenger hunt to find Halloween-theme items outside.

Higher risk activities include traditional trick or treating, where sweets are handed to children, and fancy dress parities indoors.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Shared bowls of unwrapped sweets aren't recommended for trick or treaters

So what are the risks of trick or treating?

"If you're doing something that increases your contacts with other people then you are automatically increasing their risk and your risk," says Dr Chris Smith, a virologist at the University of Cambridge.

Covid-19 can be spread by touching surfaces contaminated with the virus, as well as through droplets breathed in.

"There's the issue of how you give a treat," he said. "If everyone's scrabbling round in a bucket full of sweets and they touch all of them then there's a risk of transmission."

To reduce this risk, he recommends giving out individually wrapped sweets so children aren't touching something they then put straight in their mouths.

Safer still, you could leave sweets outside the door for people to help themselves.

Monster Mash singalong

But while large gatherings are probably off the cards this year, virtual events are still a possibility.

Elizabeth Lusty runs online choirs for children and adults and is hosting a Halloween-themed session with fancy dress and singalongs to tunes like Monster Mash and Time Warp.

Usually she would host a Halloween party for her children, Scarlett, aged three, and seven-year-old Frank, but this year the family, from west London, won't be able to.

Image source, Elizabeth Lusty
Image caption,
Elizabeth would normally host a Halloween party for her children

Instead, she's still planning to decorate the house and hopes to try to organise a safe trail with some of her neighbours who are doing the same.

In Bristol, a map of the "spookiest houses" has been created by a mother of five who says she is "obsessed by Halloween".

Natasha Wood set up the Facebook group Halloween displays in Bristol when she realised trick or treating would be different this year due to coronavirus,

Five things to do this Halloween

  1. Organise a Halloween treasure hunt within your own household
  2. Host a virtual party with themed games and music
  3. Watch a scary movie with the family
  4. Decorate your own house and organise a spooky trail, avoiding face-to-face contact
  5. Try reverse trick or treating by dropping off pre-packed sweets on neighbours' doorsteps

Since then more than 170 decorated Halloween houses have been added to a digital map covering most of the city. Among the displays is an 18ft (5.49m) pirate ship complete with skeleton crew.

"I didn't expect it to but it has literally snowballed and gone crazy in the last two weeks," Ms Wood said.

Image source, Mark Davenport
Image caption,
A Halloween pirate ship comes complete with a skeleton crew in Bristol

A similar scheme has been organised in the Marple area of Stockport, with an online map of decorated houses created for families to follow.

People are being encouraged to remain two metres apart and not to knock on doors or leave out treats - so children will only be able to admire pumpkin displays from a distance.

And of course, if you're dressing up, why not make your mask part of your costume.

"Because it's Halloween I'd say people are quite likely to be wearing a mask anyway," Dr Chris Smith adds. "So if they can make a face covering work it's way into their costume then even better."

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