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IN THE FAMILY WAY

Boo hoo? How to have a safer Halloween

We shouldn’t strip kids of normalcy, experts say. Here’s how to trick-or-treat, pandemic-style.

Halloween is going to look different this year.
Halloween is going to look different this year.Christine Glade/stock.adobe.com

Halloween is upon us, and my kids have already selected their raccoon and guinea pig costumes. (There is a surprisingly large market for child-size rodent attire. Who knew?) What I haven’t told them is that they’re probably not going anywhere.

At first, I thought Halloween was a pretty safe bet: What could be better than an outdoor holiday where masks are actually expected? But then I worried about hundreds of grubby little mitts rummaging in communal candy bowls.

And yet. In a year when basically every fun activity has been altered or canceled, I’m reluctant to deprive them completely. Are you similarly conflicted? I talked to two experts about how to navigate Halloween without scaring yourself.

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Dr. Elissa Perkins is director of emergency department infectious disease management at Boston Medical Center, and Cassandre Voltaire specializes in pediatric medicine at Emerson Medical in Maynard.

Dr. Elissa Perkins.
Dr. Elissa Perkins. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Dr. Cassandre Voltaire.
Dr. Cassandre Voltaire.Handout

“Unfortunately, in Massachusetts, we are seeing an increase in our disease prevalence. We have to keep that in mind and make sure that we’re doing our best to be safe — but I really think that with risk mitigation strategies, the risk benefit is very strongly in favor of giving kids something to celebrate, even if it doesn’t look like it always does,” Perkins says. “We know that outdoors is safer, so we should take this opportunity to allow our kids to be kids, to celebrate something in the midst of a pandemic that has taken so much from them.”

In that spirit, here’s some advice.

Transmission and prevalence data is limited, so we’re kind of on our own. OK, this might not be what you want to hear — and it worries medical professionals. “I have a lot of sympathy for parents,” says Perkins. “In this environment, it’s really, really hard to know whom to believe, what’s politically motivated. So I think that it’s a real concern.”

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For general information about your city or town, Perkins suggests visiting the community-level COVID-19 data map at Mass.gov.

“It’s a general resource that people can look to as to what’s happening in their communities, but it doesn’t give great guidance associated with it. … There’s not one source that people can look to. It’s a huge problem right now,” she says.

As such, stay home if you’re sick. It can be tricky to know when a sore throat is just a sore throat or when it’s something worse. You should stay home when in doubt, but there are big red flags that should prompt further action: “Patients who’ve been struggling with breathing, significant changes in energy levels, vomiting or diarrhea. You know your kid. If you think that something’s not right, just listen to your intuition,” Voltaire says — a good rule of thumb, even when it’s not Halloween.

Talk to your kids about expectations. Kids are going to be disappointed that this year’s strange. Hear them out and prepare them in advance.

“See where they are as far as their emotions and their frustrations, and just make sure that you hear them and maybe figure out a nice little middle ground,” Voltaire says. (See below.)

Create low-risk rituals. Perkins stresses that normalcy has been stripped from our kids, so there are mental health benefits to trick-or-treating safely.

“There’s really no risk in a lot of activities that celebrate the atmosphere of Halloween, so I think that parents should make an effort to create that space. That means decorating your house, carving pumpkins, helping your kid pick out a costume … just creating that spirit of play, that fun environment,” she says.

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Voltaire suggests family activities such as a scary movie night, reading frightening books together, a backyard scavenger hunt, or a Zoom costume competition with pals.

Decorate! Perkins hopes that communities support initiatives to create a holiday atmosphere. Maybe storefronts dress up their windows, maybe neighborhoods have house-decorating contests, maybe schools allow in-person students to wear costumes on Halloween or encourage remote kids to post photos. Think creatively!

Incorporate a mask into your child’s costume, and double up if need be. “If your costume mask is the equivalent of a face shield, you probably don’t need another one, but I don’t think there’s been any studies of how effective a Frankenstein mask is in preventing disease transmission,” Perkins admits. “So I think the safest thing is to probably wear a fitted mask or a gaiter in that situation, and then put your Halloween mask over it.”

Stagger your stroll. Perkins urges communities to designate times for different people to be out and about to avoid congestion. Consider going early — or even the night before — to minimize crowds.

Only distribute candy outdoors, with a side of sanitizer. One of the more dangerous activities? Communal bowl touching, even with wrapped candy.

“If a bunch of people are putting their hands into a bowl and then somebody is then taking off their mask, eating their candy, then putting their hand back into another bowl, that’s an environment in which you could envision disease transmission,” Perkins warns.

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If you’re handing out candy, place a bottle of hand sanitizer next to it. Arm your child with a personal bottle of sanitizer, too. She also encourages households to distribute candy outside, so you’re not opening your door to dozens of interlopers (some of whom might not be masked).

Pick your posse. Only trick-or-treat with people you’ve already been exposed to, Perkins says. That means “people who are your family, people that you’re in a pod with, or your classmates,” she says. Even so, stay masked and distanced — at least three feet apart, she says. And if you’re symptomatic? Again, stay home.

Be transparent about limitations. Make sure everyone in your group has similar risk tolerance and similar discipline strategies if kids get out of hand, because there’s nothing quite so awkward as having to yell at another person’s child.

“Make sure that people are prepped before the event and that they are aware that preventative measures are going to be enforced, like mask wearing, social distancing, and hand-washing,” says Voltaire.

She also recommends agreeing on the duration of your event (how long will you stroll?) and number of people participating, so nobody invites a rogue neighbor.

Don’t bleach your candy. “Studies have shown that this not necessary. I think the good news is we know a lot more than we did at the beginning of a pandemic about how this disease is transmitted. And while there is still that potential for surfaces to spread this disease, it seems to be a much less common epidemiological driver. If you’re careful and hand-sanitize before you put food in your mouth, I think you’re reasonably safe,” Perkins says. “Is it 100 percent risk-free? No, unfortunately, nothing is.”

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Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.