Essentia Health pediatrician offers trick-or-treating advice during pandemic

Trick-or-treating is sure to be much trickier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Halloween will present challenges as families determine how best to celebrate the social, sugary holiday. But an Essentia Health pediatrician weighs in about the pro and cons, the risks of trick-or-treating now with some cautious advice.

Carved pumpkins are on display Saturday, Oct. 17, as a part of the Northland Arboretum's annual Haunted Trail. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Dr. Jonathan KenKnight doesn’t want to sound like the Grinch even though Christmas is mere months away.

But the Essentia Health pediatrician knows he may come across that way with his medical advice that it would be better to avoid trick-or-treating this Halloween with the coronavirus.

“Even though kids tend not to get as sick from COVID-19, they can still acquire the virus and transmit it to others that would be higher risk like their parents or grandparents,” KenKnight said.

His medical advice may not make him popular with children or their parents who prefer to throw caution to the wind amid rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in Crow Wing County.

“From a public health perspective, traditional trick-or-treating this year is a really bad idea,” he said. “With cases already rising in many of our communities, having an event like that would just throw fuel on the fire.”


A graduate of the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis, the physician said he realizes his science-based recommendations may not be taken seriously by thrill-seekers.

Spooky characters perform for those waiting in line Saturday, Oct. 17, at the start of the Northland Arboretum's annual Haunted Trail. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“I think trick-or-treating is — and actually that’s from the CDC, too — that traditional trick-or-treating this year is a higher-risk activity for spreading the coronavirus, so I’d advocate for doing stuff a little different,” he said of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The doctor advised people to plan ahead, consider outdoor activities where ample social distancing is possible, wear a mask with costumes, avoid large gatherings such as costume parties and haunted houses and stay home if you don’t feel well.

“It is a disappointment,” KenKnight said of the “new normal.” “It’s a disappointment for me as well and my family. I love Halloween, but it’s just something we’re not going to be doing this year.”

Inflatable "The Nightmare Before Christmas" decorations are on display Saturday, Oct. 17, as a part of the Northland Arboretum's annual Haunted Trail. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch


The CDC identifies “one-way trick or tricking” as an activity with moderate risk, USA Today noted. “If houses choose to participate, individually-wrapped goodie bags prepared with clean hands and ‘lined up for families to grab and go while continuing to social distance (such as at the end of a driveway or at the edge of a yard)’ are encouraged.”

USA Today noted people who do plan to hand out candy are being creative in doing so given the pandemic. In Rhode Island, a family created a 12-foot orange catapult to hurl Twix and Skittles to the end of their driveway. Others created candy gardens with candy attached to wooden dowels stuck into the grass with larger gaps between them with a sign telling people to take one. Other people across the country are creating candy chutes with some using PVC pipe to deliver candy to trick-or-treaters while maintaining social distancing of 6 feet or more. And in Michigan, a family created a zip line to deliver candy to trick-or-treaters on the other side of their lawn. Some folks are implementing drones for candy delivery.

Alternate plans

More than 50% of American families plan to stay in this year and watch a scary movie instead of trick-or-treating, according to a new national survey by chocolate company See’s Candies, which sought out what 1,000 parents of school-aged children had to say.

KenKnight said if someone is hosting or attending an indoor get-together for Halloween, the host or hostess should keep it small (10 people or fewer). KenKnight also advised those who insist on going trick-or-treating to do the activity on a small scale for safety reasons.

“Keep the amount of homes you go to small — maybe restricted to your family, so people you’ve already seen or just a small group of people you might have been spending time with already, like your close friends or neighbors — but not going to the entire neighborhood,” he said.

Halloween party hosts should set up seating ahead of time allowing for space between people, minimize sharing items with those not in the household, open windows and/or doors for better airflow, and maintain a list of attendees in case one of them has or contracts COVID-19.

“Remember to wear masks because just the costume masks that come with the costume probably aren’t going to cut it. It’s better to wear your cloth mask that has several layers of fabric to cover your face … and then being sure to take turns when you go to the door,” he said.


Carved pumpkins are on display Saturday, Oct. 17, as a part of the Northland Arboretum's annual Haunted Trail. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Traditional trick-or-treating is considered a high-risk activity by the Minnesota Department of Health. Officials stated “anytime you gather with people you do not live with, the risk of infection increases for everyone.”

For those planning on welcoming trick-or-treaters, 30% will be leaving candies in bowls outside their house to enable social distancing, according to the See’s Candies survey.

“Halloween doesn’t need to end just because we are in a pandemic, but it does need to be different,” KenKnight said.

KenKnight suggested those who plan to hand out treats should sit outside while wearing a mask and have pre-packaged goodie bags to hand out, rather than having kids reach into a bowl for candy — and emphasize social distancing and have hand sanitizer available.

“There are different studies showing that the virus can survive on surfaces in different areas. I think it depends on the study you look at, so in my mind, as a doctor, that tells me that it’s inconclusive — we don’t really know — so I think it’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said.

The board-certified pediatrician also said it is a good idea to thoroughly wipe down the candy after returning home and then let it sit for a couple of days.

“The most important thing you can do when you’re either handing out candy or receiving candy is to wash your hands. … And then for the children, when you get home, wash your hands thoroughly before you enjoy your snack, for that extra layer of protection,” KenKnight said.


Nearly one-third will be turning out the lights and boycotting the usual candy call to avoid Halloween revelers, according to the See’s Candies survey, and half of those who responded don’t actually expect to see any trick-or-treaters this year.

“The bottom line — the most important thing to do to stay safe this year — is to probably forego the trick-or-treating and try to be creative at some other ways you can celebrate,” KenKnight said.

Spooky glowing orbs line a trail Saturday, Oct. 17, as a part of the Northland Arboretum's annual Haunted Trail. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Scary-good advice

  • Meet with friends virtually and show off costumes. Have fun with it! In cold climates, this may be the first time a child can wear a costume that isn’t buried under a parka.

  • When planning a costume, consider non-toxic makeup and decorative hats. If children plan to use their cloth face coverings as part of their costume, they should not paint them, as some paints contain toxins.

  • Celebrate with a movie night and dress as favorite characters. Do this as a family at home or consider letting children watch with their friends while video chatting, with everyone starting the movie at the same time.

  • Look for community events focused on safe ways to have fun, such as programs offered by a park district, arboretum, pumpkin patch, zoo or another outdoor venue in your area.

  • Decorate pumpkins. Children can draw a face with markers, then parents can do the cutting.

  • If children are outdoors, consider marking their costumes with reflective tape. Make sure shoes fit well and that costumes are short enough to prevent tripping, entanglement or contact with flame. Remind children to be careful around cars, as drivers may not see them. Remind them also to wash hands really well when returning home.

  • Consider offering non-edible goodies to friends and family. Halloween is one of the trickiest days of the year for children with food allergies.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .


Dr. Jonathan KenKnight is a pediatrician at Essentia Health. Submitted photo

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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