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Is trick-or-treating OK during COVID? What NY, Southern Tier officials are saying about it

New York won't ban trick-or-treating in 2020, and most local officials are giving the go-ahead, but be sure to still follow safety guidelines.

Maggie Gilroy
Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin

In a year that has seen a lot more tricks than treats, it seems many families across the 607 area code can start planning on hitting the streets this Halloween, but officials urge caution during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has mandated restrictions on restaurants, schools and churches since March, said he has no plans to ban trick-or-treating, despite concerns about whether kids going door to door could create a safety hazard.

The holiday also coincides with a surge in coronavirus infections in the Southern Tier and parts of Broome County that has been flagged as a "Yellow Zone," adding more limits on mass gatherings.

If restrictions or bans on Halloween traditions are enacted, it would come from local governments or even neighborhood groups.

Trick-or-Treaters packed the Greater Binghamton Airport on Oct. 31, 2019 to celebrate Halloween.

The City of Corning is one New York municipality that has banned trick-or-treating, with City Manager Mark Ryckman pointing to the recent increased spread of COVID-19, the CDC's recommendations against traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating and other potentially risky activities. 

“Door-to-door trick-or-treating is not allowed because it can be very difficult to maintain proper social distancing,” Ryckman said.

However, other Southern Tier municipalities have said they will allow door-to-door candy seeking, and others said they are still waiting on more guidance from the state or counties.

"I would not ban trick-or-treaters going door to door," Cuomo told News12 on Long Island. "I don't think that's appropriate."

He suggested he might have more guidance on precautions that families might want to take on Oct. 31, but has no plans to put in a statewide ban.

"If you want to go for a walk with your child through the neighborhood, I'm not gonna tell you can't take your child to the neighborhood. I'm not going to do that," he said. "I'll give you my advice and guidance, and then you'll make a decision what you do that night."

More:Cuomo says he will not ban trick-or-treating this Halloween in New York

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Broome County Executive Jason Garnar is not planning on enlisting any restrictions, his spokesperson said. The Broome County Health Department will be issuing guidance in alignment with the Centers for Disease Control, which advises against trick-or-treating in its traditional format.

A spokesperson for the City of Binghamton said on Oct. 12 the city is not planning to enlist any city-specific rules and is also encouraging residents to follow CDC recommendations. The city will also follow and promote any New York State Department of Health guidelines or recommendations issued in advance of the holiday. 

The story remains the same in much of the Southern Tier.

Tompkins County has not banned or restricted trick-or-treating, and also points to CDC guidance. Households can also download posters, available on the county's website, that indicate whether trick-or-treaters are welcome and contain safety recommendations.

The City of Ithaca is following the guidance released by the Tompkins County Health Department. 

Chemung County Executive Christopher Moss is advising all municipalities to determine how they will handle Halloween on a local level. However, he sent out a memo making the recommendation that they do not schedule traditional trick-or-treating, but to hold safe events locally to discourage travel.

The county is working with several municipalities to allow trunk-or-treating events, as long as a safety plan has been submitted and approved by the health department.

"These events throughout the municipalities should be held on the same date and at the same time so that children won’t be crisscrossing the county in an attempt to attend multiple events," Moss said in a statement. 

Moss said one of the guidelines for the plans will be the need for either code enforcement or law enforcement to be present during the entire event, to assure that protocols are followed. 

The Town of Southport in Chemung County is neither encouraging nor prohibiting going door-to-door. But the town is encouraging residents to sign up for a drive-thru trick-or-treat event Oct. 31 at Chapel Park in Pine City. Residents must preregister at a link on the town’s parks and recreation Facebook page.

2008: Gabrielle Montgomery-Green, 5, of Big Flats left, and Raevin Shirley, 5, of Corning look at a toothbrush they Friday during trick-or-treating on Market Street in Corning.

This is the same in the Town of Vestal in Broome, where Supervisor John Schaffer said he is not issuing any special rules.

"There are plenty already to remember," he said. "We are in favor of having a Halloween in our town for the children.

"All participants should follow all the rules set forth on social distancing and truly having a great experience and a safe one."

Town of Dickinson Supervisor Michael Marinaccio said he has not issued any guidance, but he has concerns. 

"Though I am concerned of children going door to door in the traditional trick or treats," he said, "I am hoping that the governor will issue a state-wide restriction due to the uptick in positive cases here in Broome County and elsewhere."

What are the experts saying?

Trick-or-Treaters packed the Greater Binghamton Airport on Oct. 31, 2019 to celebrate Halloween.

Kevin Cummings, an Associate Professor in Cornell University's Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences, said he would not recommend trick-or-treating.

"The longer you're trick-or-treating, the more people you're exposed to and some of those people could potentially be infected," he said. "So, there is some risk of the virus being present on candy or something like that, or a surface like a door handle. But the bigger thing would be droplet or aerosolized spread from individuals. Either the people trick-or-treating potentially could be a carrier, or the person at the home who's handing out the candy." 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued considerations for holiday celebrations, including Halloween. 

There's several Halloween dos and don'ts: Do wear a Halloween-themed protective cloth mask; don't wear a costume mask instead of a cloth mask.

"A typical Halloween-type mask is not going to have multiple layers of breathable material and it's not going to cover the mouth and nose in a way that prevents gaps," Cummings said. 

And don't wear a costume mask over a cloth mask. 

"Because it can be dangerous if the costume mask makes it hard to breathe," the CDC's website states.  

Dressed as a purple butterfly, Vaira Lawrence goes trick-or-treating with her brother Carson, Hazel Moshier and other family members at the New Hartford Shopping Center on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. Traditional trick-or-treating is considered high risk by the CDC due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the main activities the CDC recommends avoiding is conventional trick-or-treating. 

But a safer alternative could be what the CDC calls "one-way trick-or-treating," in which individually wrapped goodie bags are lined up for families to grab and go while keeping a safe social distance. Though this method may still pose a moderate risk, according to the CDC. 

"If that could be executed in a way that allowed social distancing to be maintained, then that would certainly be a lower risk activity than conventional trick-or-treating," Cummings said. 

Trunk-or-treat events, crowded indoor costume parties, indoor haunted houses, hayrides or tractor rides with those not in your household, and attending fall festivals outside of one's community are all considered by the CDC to be higher-risk activities and should be avoided.

"The big things to avoid, I would say, are not only the traditional trick or treating, but of course any crowded parties, particularly indoors," Cummings said. "That would be bad, that would be a high risk thing." 

The following are seen as moderate risk activities, according to the CDC: 

  • One-way trick-or-treating where individually wrapped goodie bags are lined up for families to grab and go while continuing to social distance.
  • A small group, outdoor, open-air costume parade where people are distanced more than six feet apart.
  • An outdoor costume party where masks are worn and social distancing is enforced. 
  • An open-air, one-way, walk-through haunted forest where masks are worn and social distancing is enforced. Greater social distancing is advised if there will be screaming. 
  • Visiting pumpkin patches or orchards where people use hand sanitizer before touching pumpkins or picking apples, masks are worn and social distancing is enforced.
  • An outdoor Halloween movie night with local family friends with people spaced at least six feet apart.

These lower-risk activities are what the CDC has determined to be safe alternatives to traditional Halloween activities:

  • Carving or decorating pumpkins with members of your household.
  • Carving or decorating pumpkins outside, at a safe distance, with neighbors or friends.
  • Decorating your house, apartment or living space.
  • A Halloween scavenger hunt where children are given lists of Halloween-themed things to look for while they walk outdoors from house to house admiring Halloween decorations at a distance
  • A virtual Halloween costume contest.
  • A Halloween movie night with people you live with.
  • A scavenger hunt-style trick-or-treat search with your household members in or around your home rather than going house to house.

"I hate to say it, because Halloween was a really fun time as a kid, and I get that," said Cummings on encouraging others to stay home.

"But there are virtual Halloween events. That's possible and that's, of course, a very, very low risk thing. Doing something with your family, in terms of decorating pumpkins, carving pumpkins, or trying to have a Halloween movie night. None of those things closely replicate trick-or-treating, but they would all be safe things to do and it still would be themed in a Halloween manner."

Jeff Murray of the USA TODAY Network contributed to this story.

Follow Maggie Gilroy on Twitter @MaggieGilroy. Support our journalism and become a digital subscriber today.