TORONTO — Fears that an invisible virus may be lurking among trick-or-treaters will keep Melanie Vicente's two children home this Halloween, but the Toronto mom says she's determined to make sure her beloved holiday is still spooktacular.
She's watching COVID-19 case counts while weighing reasonable risk, and expects the whole family can still dress up, decorate the yard with their faux-cemetery set pieces and smoke machine, and of course, indulge in some candy.
But there's a lot that will change — her soon-to-be-four-year-old won't get her usual Halloween-themed birthday bash on the 28th, and the extended family won't come over on the 31st for a group excursion through the neighbourhood.
The scaled-back festivities are yet another blow to normal life wrought by the novel coronavirus, bemoans Vicente, who loves the holiday.
"I always hoped that I would have a child around October, just so I can have Halloween parties," chuckles Vicente, planning an Easter Egg-style candy hunt in the yard in lieu of setting her kids loose on the neighbourhood.
"Halloween is a big deal around my house."
The danger COVID-19 will pose to candy-sharing homeowners and pint-sized explorers is far from clear, but Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory have already suggested devotees start curbing expectations.
Tory said he "won't hesitate" to cancel trick-or-treating if public health officials decide it's too risky, while Ford suggested last week that parents make alternative plans given a rise in confirmed cases that has paused further reopening.
Medical and child development experts agree the novel coronavirus poses very real threats but say it doesn't have to entirely cancel Halloween. Many experts point to valuable lifelong lessons its traditions can offer in fostering a child's creative expression, independence, and resilience.
"I think it would be incredibly sad to not go trick-or-treating," says health policy expert Colin Furness, who suggests a slight outdoor air current "more than makes up for the fact that the virus is more persistent" in cooler weather.
"If community transmission is very, very high and we have to really start locking things down, yeah, we're going to have to lose Halloween. But we shouldn't be doing that before we're closing bars and restaurants and other things."
Parents should be realistic about what precautions their children can take if they venture outdoors, even while supervised, adds Dr. Fatima Kakkar, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist who expects distancing will be virtually impossible.
"Your kids are seeing other kids, they're congregating with other kids. They're climbing the stairs, they're touching things," says Kakkar, a doctor at the Montreal hospital CHU Sainte-Justine.
While she says there's "a theoretical risk" the virus could spread on such surfaces, Kakkar says the person-to-person interaction is the greater threat.
"We're in a very big unknown for these next few weeks with school, and fall, and everything happening," adds Kakkar.
"If it's not essential to the well-being of the child, I think it's a risk that's potentially not worth investing in this year."
Furness expects to take his kids trick-or-treating if risk is low, but there's no hard-and-fast rule to determine that.
Case counts are obviously a factor, as is the prevalence of community spread, not to mention the ability of public health to provide real-time data to accurately describe these things.
Then there's the size of your own bubble and the cumulative exposure risks you take, such as whether you regularly dine out, says Furness.
Those who venture outdoors must wear masks, bring hand sanitizer and take the usual distancing precautions, even if you're outdoors the entire time, advises Furness.
Once you return home, Furness suggests stashing the candy haul for at least two-to-three days, which should be enough time to eliminate contamination risk.
To kill all traces of the virus, he recommends waiting an entire week.
"If you just let it sit for seven days there's really nothing survivable on there. As a little kid I don't know if I want to watch my candy for seven days, so there's maybe some negotiation there."
Homeowners may want to wipe down railings, doors, door knobs and mailboxes as an extra precaution. Furness says the virus can persist for days on such surfaces, and may be more persistent in October's cooler temperatures.
"Virus longevity is very dependent on temperature and somewhat so in humidity," says Furness, an assistant professor at the U of T's Institute for Health Policy Management and Evaluation.
"Get cold enough and the virus will live indefinitely. Make it hot enough and the virus dies right away."
From a developmental perspective, early years educator Nikki Martyn cautions against overlooking Halloween's less obvious life lessons, such as encouraging a child to imagine other perspectives when they dress up as a character, and how to cope with fear in manageable amounts.
"It's play, right? And we use that to deal with stress, anxiety, fear, trauma, how to cope with something," says Martyn, program head of early childhood studies at the University of Guelph-Humber.
She encourages parents looking for a trick-or-treat substitute to take direction from whatever your child loves most about Halloween — if it's dress-up, go ahead and buy that costume and let them wear it around the neighbourhood for a few days; if it's the spooky decorations, schedule a neighbourhood tour in the days before or right after Halloween; if they revel in the rare chance to be outside while it's dark, consider a backyard campout.
"For some kids the candy part is more important than others ... and for some kids they may not care about the candy — it's really just that fun (and) the adventure, the exploration," says Martyn, also suggesting a family movie night, or surprising kids with an assortment of candy if they like to trade and organize a pile of goodies.
For those averse to visiting strangers, there might be safe ways to trick-or-treat, she adds, suggesting an outdoor visit to a family already in your bubble or the yard of a neighbouring classmate in your child's school cohort.
Regardless, Halloween offers a great opportunity to forge deeper family bonds, and this year should be no different, she says.
"It helps to build that loving secure relationship that really, really lasts one's whole life," says Martyn.
"It's knowing that you can trust your parents and that you can work together to build things."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2020.
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press