A good length of plastic plumbing pipe is this year’s must-have Halloween accessory.

Contactless candy chutes are popping up all over Maine, made with PVC pipe, drainage tubes or even old Clorox wipes containers duct-taped together. They’re being constructed by folks who hope to make trick-or-treating safer during the pandemic, and allow the annual sweet and spooky celebration to go on almost as usual.

“I just felt like so much has been taken away from kids already this  year, that I wanted to come up with a way that I could still give out candy,” said Jeanne King, a retired elementary school teacher in Scarborough, explaining why she’s attached an eight-foot section of PVC pipe to the railing of her front steps and wrapped it in “caution” tape. “I’m going to make up bags of candy and pencils and let them fly down the pipe to the kids. I want the families to feel safe.”

Local and national health officials are warning that traditional trick-or-treating presents a “higher risk” of spreading COVID-19. Even with safeguards – not handing candy to kids, wearing face coverings and trying to keep kids and parents from congregating at houses or in the street – health officials classify it as a “moderate risk” activity. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a host of precautions, including avoiding direct contact, wearing a cloth mask and leaving individually bagged treats on a table or step for kids to take, one at a time. A former Maine CDC director, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, said that if she had young children, she would not send them out trick-or-treating this year.

Some people on social media have been waiting for a yea or nay verdict on Halloween and whether trick-or-treating should be canceled in cities and towns. But that isn’t likely to happen in most places, state and local officials say, leaving the decision of whether to participate in trick-or-treating up to individuals. Many town and city governments have stayed away from any stronger guidance than posting CDC Halloween safety recommendations on their websites. But at least a couple have taken more definitive stances.

Kevin Huddy of South Portland wasn’t going to build such an elaborate Halloween display this year, but became convinced some people wanted a diversion. He hopes people will be “respectful” of each other while viewing it. Photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The York Police Department announced Oct. 7 on Facebook its decision to “cancel” trick-or-treating and asked people to find some other way to celebrate Halloween. In Bath, city officials announced they were making trick-or-treating a little more difficult this year by not closing off any residential streets to vehicle traffic, as they have in the past. On Oct. 13, police in Wells essentially gave trick-or-treating the green light by posting on Facebook that there would be “no restrictions on Trick or Treating” in that coastal town. “If you don’t want to go out – don’t. If you don’t want to hand out candy – simply turn your house lights off,” the message read.

York Police Chief Charles J. Szeniawski said his department is looking for “voluntary compliance” of the trick-or-treating prohibition there. He said he decided to ask people not to trick-or-treat out of concern for public health, especially because York County recently had been an epicenter of COVID-19 in the state and there was an outbreak this month at Coastal Ridge Elementary School in York, forcing it to temporarily close. Szeniawski also said the town has a couple neighborhoods that attract large crowds of trick-or-treaters.

“I don’t even know how we’d do contact tracing if somebody did come down with COVID-19” after trick-or-treating, said Szeniawski. “A lot of people called us asking for direction. Some were afraid of people coming to their house, but didn’t want to act like Scrooge and not participate.”

TRICKY SITUATION

On social media, it’s easy to see how divided people are on what to do about trick-or-treating. Some say they’ll try to pass out candy without contact or crowds, other says they’ll bring their kids to just a few nearby houses or create an alternate Halloween at home. Others say they don’t feel comfortable participating, for health reasons, and still others say it should just go on as usual. For many, it’s a difficult decision, since trick-or-treating brings joy to kids and adults alike and could be a much-needed boost of frivolity in this difficult year of dealing with the pandemic.

Kevin Huddy’s Halloween display in South Portland, including a fishing boat manned by corpses. Photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Kevin Huddy of South Portland is a local Halloween celebrity of sorts, known for creating massive spooky displays at his home on Walnut Street for the past 10 years. He covers the entire front of his bungalow-style house with plywood to create a backdrop – sometimes a castle, sometimes a ship or the night sky – and fills his yard with “corpses” or other props made with his partner, Chris Bagley. When the pandemic hit, Huddy decided he wouldn’t do it this year. He figured the crowds his creations attract would be too large.

But then he started running into people at the supermarket or hardware store who nudged him, saying, “You’re going to do it this year, aren’t you?” So he decided that, with everyone looking for normalcy and a mental break, he would go ahead and transform his house as usual. This year’s display features a fishing boat manned by corpses. Huddy says he’s still wondering if it was the right thing to do, and hopes people will be respectful of each other’s safety when viewing it. He’s planning to use a candy chute – a drainage pipe that extends from his house, through the fishing boat, to a table in the front yard. He’s also planning to put up a sign asking that viewers of his display follow social distancing and safety guidelines.

“I’m not a rebel, I wasn’t thinking ‘Nobody’s going to stop me,’ ” said Huddy, 63. “I hope everyone plays by the rules, and wears masks and people aren’t standing too close to each other.”

Karissa Morris of Waterboro decided to create an alternative Halloween celebration at home this year for her children, Connor, 9 and Jordyn, 11. Connor has asthma and Morris’s partner has diabetes. So for Morris, who works as a certified nursing assistant, the health risks of going out for trick-or-treating seemed too great. She and her children came up with a Halloween home plan that includes a candy scavenger hunt in the yard, Halloween-themed games and food, including a monster-shaped meatloaf. At night they’ll set up a screen and projector outside and watch a spooky movie by a fire. She’s also set up a Facebook group, with more than 60 members, for people to share alternative Halloween ideas.

Karissa Morris and her kids, Jordyn, 11, and Connor, 9, at their home in Waterboro. This year the family has decided to create a Halloween celebration at home, rather than go trick-or-treating. Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“My kids were kind of bummed out at first, but now they’re excited about everything we have planned,” said Morris, 31.

Julie Otte of Cumberland started seeing suggestions for contactless ways to participate in Halloween online and knew that’s what she wanted to do. But instead of buying a PVC pipe, like so many are doing. she took used Clorox wipes containers she’s been saving during the pandemic – about 19 of them – and fastened them together with duct tape that has candy corn designs. She created a 10-foot-long chute she plans to use to drop goodie bags from a front window of her split-level home – a story and a half high – to children standing on her driveway.

“I think kids are going to do it no matter what people say, so I wanted to be ready to give them candy and stay safe,” said Otte, 64, who provides before- and after-school child care at her home in Cumberland Center.

PLAY IT SAFE

Cumberland is one of the many towns – along with Cape Elizabeth, Portland, Scarborough, Saco and others – that have either posted links to CDC guidelines for trick-or-treating on its website or issued news releases or community notices with safety recommendations. The statement from the Cumberland Town Council on trick-or-treating reads, in part: “If you choose not to celebrate or participate, please leave your porch lights off so trick or treaters will pass by your residence. If you choose to participate, please stay safe and use the CDC guidelines to the best of your abilities.”

The director of the Maine CDC, Dr. Nirav Shah, has been asked at his weekly press briefings whether he’d recommend trick-or-treating, but has stopped short of giving a yes or no answer. At his Oct. 8 briefing, he said his main concern is that trick-or-treaters and candy givers could come in contact with enough people and enough areas to contract “a cumulative dose of the virus large enough to cause COVID-19,” Shah said.

He also said people should consider their own risk factors – especially the elderly and people with chronic conditions – and not make a decision too early. Cases of COVID-19 are expected to spike as the weather gets colder, so people should see what conditions are like in the days leading up to Halloween before making a final decision.

“There is no standard one-size-fits-all for this, as with so many things in the era of COVID-19,” Shah said during the briefing. “What is your own family’s risk? There is a way Halloween can be celebrated, but it will be much different.”

So how can people participate in trick-or-treating and mitigate the risks?

In its COVID-19 “prevention checklist” on seasonal activities, the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development lists trick-or-treating “where large groups of people go door to door to receive treats that are handed out in person” as a higher-risk activity. It puts crowded haunted houses and costume parties in the same category. The information can be found near the bottom of the checklist under “Halloween activities.”

A “moderate risk” way to trick-or-treat, according to the checklist, would be “participating in one-way or otherwise distanced trick-or-treating” where wrapped food or goodie bags are lined up on a table, driveway or doorstep so families can grab them and go without getting too close to anyone. Masks – cloth ones that cover the mouth and nose, not the costume kind – should be worn by people who are giving or getting candy. The federal CDC’s guidance on Halloween also lists traditional trick-or-treating as higher risk and leaving treats outside for children as moderate risk.

A sailor-corpse from Kevin Huddy’s Halloween display at his home in South Portland. Photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The federal CDC’s “Steps to Take when Trick or Treating” recommends that candy givers avoid direct contact with trick-or-treaters, give treats outdoors when possible and set up a station, maybe a disinfected table, where individually bagged store-bought treats can be placed for kids to take. It also recommends that children bring hand sanitizer while trick-or-treating and use it after touching treats and people, and that they wash their hands for 20 seconds at home before eating any treats. Everyone involved should stay 6 feet apart from non-family members, the CDC says.

A news release from the city of Portland includes links to CDC information and suggests marking off a 6-foot line on the sidewalks or steps, with duct tape, so people know where to stand to stay away from each other. The release also cautions against having kids all reach into the same bowl for candy.

Mills thinks the risk of the virus living on a candy wrapper which has been outside for a while is low. She said that generally viruses don’t live long on surfaces that are cold, hot or metal. The risk can also be reduced by having as few people as possible touch the candy wrapper – just the candy giver and a single trick-or-treater.  Mills said ultraviolet light that is found outdoors seems to kill the virus, so you could also leave your candy out in the sun for a while.

But Mills also said scientists don’t know yet how long the virus can live on surfaces – indoor or outdoors. A federal CDC fact sheet on the novel coronavirus  says it is not known how weather and temperature affect it. The CDC says the length of time the virus has been found to live on surfaces has varied greatly in studies, from a couple hours to three days. But Mills says just because viral particles are still on a surface hours or days later does not mean they are still “viable” as a way for transmitting the disease.

The state checklist also recommends alternatives to trick-or-treating, such as a small open-air costume parade in your neighborhood. Several towns have made similar recommendations or organized alternative candy-giving events through their recreation departments. York is holding a Trail Trick-or-Treat at Goodrich Park on Oct. 28 with children who pre-register getting treats at themed spots throughout the park. Windham is organizing a Drive-Thru Trunk or Treat on Oct. 24, where people pre-register to pick up treats in their cars behind the North Windham Hannaford supermarket.

The state checklist also suggests decorating pumpkins, scavenger hunts or other small group activities at home as lower-risk alternatives to trick-or-treating.

Mills, who is now chief health improvement officer for the MaineHealth network, said sending kids out to go house to house on Halloween could be risky because it dials down “the layers of protection.”

“It’s different than sending a child to school, where we know everyone is wearing a mask and precautions are being taken. We don’t know what people will do at their own house, or what kids will do when they get together in the street,” she said. “There’s no complete black and white for this, but if my kids were younger, I would not have them trick-or-treat.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: