Friday, May 7, 2021

CDC: Trick-or-treating too risky


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a ruling about Halloween activities, and trick-or-treating, as it’s typically done with kids going from house to house and getting candy tossed into their bag or plastic pumpkin, is apparently a high-risk activity in terms of spreading Covid-19.

According to the guidance, “There are several safer, alternative ways to participate in Halloween.” Those ways include having a scary movie night with people who already live in your household and using Zoom to host a virtual costume party.

The alternatives are interesting and reflect the pandemic’s hold on our lives this year, especially the ones that make use of technology, as kids have been doing in school since March. And I assume the reduction in fun from a Zoom costume party, compared to a regular Halloween costume party, would be analogous to the reduction in learning from e-learning. Which is to say, not a whole lotta fun.

Another downside: there’s no candy. Yet there’s more than one way to make good and lasting memories, especially when kids are involved.

We reported on one alternative, which would involve candy, known as “ghosting,” from the student newspaper of Oak Lawn Community High School in Illinois. Given the CDC’s latest guidance, though, this would be considered a “moderate-risk” activity: “One-way trick-or-treating, where individually wrapped goodie bags are 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),” the CDC says, carries a moderate risk. Also, “If you are preparing goodie bags, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after preparing the bags.”

Given the risk of trick-or-treating, the low probability that complete strangers will follow safety precautions when preparing goodie bags, and the utter emptiness of the alternatives under Covid-19, maybe it would be best just to skip Halloween this year, as we have skipped learning in our schools, caring for the sick among us, and ensuring people have a place to live despite high unemployment.

Some alternatives could work, though, and if you insist on Halloween, please be safe. There are more ways than candy to let kids see again that adults in their communities feel their pain. That sort of brain reprieve and community reassurance is probably good for our overall mental health.

Any gatherings should at least be conducted outdoors, with masks and social distancing, and these important preventative measures should also be followed during one-way trick-or-treating.


Any activity, especially from a governance perspective, forces us into a situation where we need to analyze the risks and benefits. If the benefits outweigh the risks, we would prefer to undertake the activity; if the risks outweigh the benefits, we would prefer to avoid the activity if we can.

To create a simple mathematical model, the “risk” of an activity, r, is some function of the probability that something bad will happen, p, and how bad that something is or its negative effect on our lives, e:

r = \sum_{i=1}^n f(p_i, e_i)

where i is the index of the particular risk factor being considered and n is the total number of risk factors..

Hugging your grandkids, for example, comes with the risk that you will catch Covid-19, but the benefits to both you and your grandkids from the hugging activity are great, making many grandparents conclude that it’s worth the risk.

As with anything, there are factors that make e higher for the hugging activity, such as if you have a health condition or age that renders you somehow less fit to deal with the virus in your body. There are also ways to reduce the probability that you’ll catch it from your grandkid, such as wearing masks during the hugging.

When the CDC talks about “high risk” in this guidance, it is referring to the “probability” only, not to the effect, simply because the effect depends more on the person involved than on the activity itself. Does the benefit of brain reprieve from having some fun on Halloween or getting candy outweigh the risks for you?

Another example: converting back to in-person instruction.

There are multiple risks with online learning, including physical and mental health issues, feelings of social isolation, prevalence of sexual or psychological abuse, the loss of learning, and so on. Each of these effects carries a specific probability of happening, based on empirical evidence in the population. Resuming in-person instruction would eliminate those risks (bring f (p, e) to 0 for them) but introduce other risks, such as kids catching Covid-19, a small number of them becoming very sick, a percentage of them spreading the disease to others who live in their homes, especially those who could be in a higher risk category, and so on.

Again, each of these carries a risk that depends on the empirical probability of the event happening and the estimated effect it would have if it does, which is a function of the exact people involved in each household, school, or community.

It’s my opinion that Halloween isn’t worth the risk: The benefits from celebrating one holiday are not great enough to outweigh the risks of increased viral transmission.

On the other hand, resuming in-person instruction is worth the risk in my opinion. The benefits of social learning, with kids in a classroom interacting with and bouncing ideas off of their teachers and each other, even while masked and social distancing, outweigh the risks for those kids, who have a low probability of getting very sick from the disease. Obviously exceptions occur for family members who are in a higher risk category, since kids don’t go to school in a vacuum. But those can be mitigated in terms of the probability by taking appropriate safety precautions.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.


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