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Archived - Can we avoid a nightmare before Christmas? Dr. Etches answers your Halloween COVID questions

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October 27, 2020
Feature Stories

As a mother or two young boys, Dr. Vera Etches can relate to parents who want to give their kids a fun Halloween. But as Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health, she also knows what’s at stake if COVID-19 keeps spreading.

Dr. Etches spent a few minutes answering your top questions to help us all understand why she recommends avoiding Halloween parties and trick-or-treating this year.

A woman with brown hair wearing a black shirt holds a large carved pumpkin in a yard with leaves on the ground on a sunny day.

Dr. Etches, let’s start with the most common question we’re getting: Why is it okay for kids to go to school but not to go trick-or-treating?

Ottawa has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 transmission in Ontario. We know it’s disappointing, but people going out and mingling and sharing food is exactly the kind of activity that will spread COVID-19. That’s why we need to do things differently this year.

Keeping schools open is a top priority during this pandemic. We need to treat schools like fortresses that we’re all protecting. We want students to keep learning and socializing with their friends. And keeping schools open also lets parents go to work, which is important for families’ financial situation and for the economy overall.

We should be trying to avoid a spike in cases two weeks after Halloween. Each positive case represents a real person, possibly in a real hospital bed, and we would be forced to wonder if that person’s illness could have been prevented. One of the main reasons we are advising people to keep festivities within their own households this year is because reducing community spread is key to keeping schools open.

As an outdoor activity, shouldn’t trick-or-treating be considered low-risk, in terms of spreading COVID-19?

Let’s not forget, there are lots of people who would normally trick-or-treat indoors, for instance, in a condo or apartment building. And even outside, think about what trick-or-treating usually looks like: lots of giddy little groups of ghouls and goblins moving from house to house, passing one another closely and coming within arm’s reach of the person distributing candy at their front door.

I hear people talking about ways to try to make trick-or-treating safer, but we need to weigh the benefits of going trick-or-treating or going to a Halloween party against the risks. Since Ottawa is already a red zone, the risk is that we make a bad situation even worse. Given the state of the pandemic, it’s not worth putting yourself or your kids in a situation where you’re likely to come into close contact with people outside your household. That’s the exact opposite of what we are asking people to do right now.

People find it discouraging when they see others not following public health advice. What do you tell folks who don’t want to miss out, especially when they don’t think others are making the same sacrifice?

It’s easy to think one person’s actions don’t matter, but in the case of the pandemic, they absolutely do.

We’ve seen real examples of how a single gathering where just one person was ill can lead to dozens of others getting sick and hundreds more needing to self-isolate and get tested. This is extremely disruptive to people’s lives. It means having to stay home from work and school.

Now imagine a scenario with thousands of children trick-or-treating across Ottawa. Imagine hundreds of parties happening across the city in one weekend, where people are interacting with people outside their household. Community spread on that scale would put significant stress on our already over-burdened health system. That’s the Halloween horror show we should all be striving to avoid.

Ottawa is already a red zone. I’m asking everyone to play it safe this weekend. Getting dressed up and taking a walk to enjoy neighbourhood Halloween decorations is a good option, as long as you stick with members of your household.

A woman wearing a black shirt carves pumpkins with two young boys in Halloween costumes outside on a sunny day.

There are so many ways to have fun and celebrate with your household while still safeguarding the health of the community:

  • Set up a trick-or-treat candy hunt in your yard or living space.
  • Share scary stories with friends on Facetime or Zoom.
  • Stage a virtual costume party with friends, family and neighbours.
  • Share photos or connect virtually with your loved ones who are more at risk.

How will you and your family be celebrating Halloween this year?

My boys are so excited, which makes me excited! We put pumpkins in our window more than a week ago and we’re counting down the days to Halloween. We had a great time carving pumpkins, and we’re looking forward to dressing up and hiding candy around the house and yard on Saturday.

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