Over the summer, the phrase “risk budget” entered my personal lexicon and lodged in my brain, based on this very smart New York Times piece about how to cautiously navigate a COVID-19 world where things were starting to open up again. The gist is that we should think of the risks we each take as a cumulative bucket—which means making room for the risks that accompany the things that matter most to us or impart the most benefit, and skipping things that don’t matter as much, or which carry a risk that is simply too high.
The writer compares it to Weight Watchers points: you save up for the treats you want the most.
What’s useful about this framework is that it takes into account both sides of the scale: the cost of an activity, gathering or outing in terms of its risk, and the benefit we derive from the thing.
Which brings me to Halloween and trick-or-treating. Specifically (for now) in Ottawa, because our lovely city is always an Olympic-calibre overachiever when it comes to anything bureaucratic and peevish. But this issue is going to pop up in a lot of places over the next week or two.
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, said earlier this week that there was no need to kibosh Halloween, when a little creativity could easily make it pandemic-safe. “I think finding that balance of trying to provide some degree of normality, even though it is actually different from any other year, most public health leaders think that that is actually important,” she said in a briefing on Tuesday.
Tam suggested using different fabrics to incorporate face masks into kids’ costumes and handing out pre-packaged candy at the end of a hockey stick—see, Tim Hortons? There’s your next gauzy Canadiana commercial, even in the midst of our current dystopian hellscape—as simple safety measures.
“There are ways to actually manage this outdoors,” she said, before adding a caveat: “You should listen to your local public health direction.”
Whereupon Ottawa’s chief public health officer said: Nope.
“Halloween needs to be different this year,” Vera Etches told Ottawa city council in recommending against trick-or-treating, the day after Tam made her remarks. Etches cited Ottawa’s worrying level of COVID-19 cases, which give the city the unhappy distinction of having the highest rate of infection per population in the province, as reason for extreme caution.
Mayor Jim Watson said police and bylaw officers would not be out searching for tiny ghouls and goblins to ticket—and if that sounds insane, please recall that this is the city that shut down a lemonade stand run by a seven-year-old and her five-year-old sister because they did not have a permit—but city leadership was strongly recommending that families cancel trick-or-treating. He would not be giving out candy at his own house, Watson added.
Long before we arrived at October, here is a short and extremely incomplete list of the daily joys, special rituals, ordinary structure and fun children across Canada and around the world have missed out on: birthday parties, playgrounds, sports, dance recitals, skating lessons, swimming, borrowing books from the library, seeing their friends in the flesh, learning at school in any normal sense of the term, time with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and everyone else who would normally populate their family’s village, fireworks and pizza days. And on top of that, they have had to learn things about the world that cause them to reflexively step back every time someone passes them on the sidewalk.
Any parent can tell you about the deep, refracted, existential misery they have seen in their kids as a result of all of these losses. The only thing more heartbreaking than that suffering might be the cheerful, stalwart “Okay, sure, this is just what we do now” adaptability children have also demonstrated, seamlessly incorporating hand sanitizer and mask-enforcement into their narrative when they play store or restaurant.
The cost side of the ledger if we cancel Halloween is heavy, adding yet another loss to a 2020 calendar that looks like one continuous grey smear of disappointment from March forward, and shows no signs of brightening up. And prim, anodyne public health messages informing us that carving a pumpkin with your family or watching a spooky movie on your couch are much safer and gosh, just as fun as trick-or-treating suggest that certain adults have forgotten not only their childhoods but their sense of decency, too.
And what are we trading the missing joy of that screeching, sugar-fuelled, iconic night for, in terms of the risks we would supposedly be mitigating?
Trick-or-treating contains most of the exact same elements that public health authorities have been telling us for months add up to substantially lower risk of transmission of the coronavirus.
It’s an outdoor activity where it would be relatively easy for people to travel in household groups and space themselves out from other households. Close contact would be glancing at best, because have you ever seen children stand still on Halloween? The COVID Alert app that the federal government is promoting as a key tool for tracing and case management is only triggered if you are less than six feet from someone for 15 minutes. The notices we get from public health to alert us to a COVID case in our children’s schools offer reassurance by explaining that “briefly coming within 2 metres of someone, such as walking past them in a hallway or on a sidewalk, is not close contact.” Neither of those risk thresholds look anything like the reality of trick-or-treating.
As Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics, put it in a Times op-ed after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States issued an official edict against it, “…If I had to design an activity for children that might be safe during a pandemic, I’m not sure that I could do a better job than trick-or-treating.”
Lingering issues could be addressed with a little ingenuity and effort.
If you’re worried about the sort of small, crowded neighbourhoods that get mobbed on Halloween night, extend the hours of trick-or-treating—Halloween is on a Saturday, which is perhaps the only break any of us have gotten from the universe in this hideous year—and stagger kids by age or even and odd house numbers. Array treats on front steps or a large tray so no one is pawing through a bowl or standing in close proximity to an open door. Buy some extra candies your kids can hoover up on Halloween night and quarantine the rest of their treats for a few days or wipe down the packages if you’re worried about contamination. Mark a path on lawns where kids can wait their turn; believe me, they’re all used to it by now, they won’t even blink.
With a minimal amount of creativity and good sense, trick-or-treating could look exactly like adults queuing up to grab takeout. Public health experts have been telling us for months that’s a perfectly safe thing to do, while political leaders have outright exhorted us to do so as often as possible in order to keep our local economies from imploding completely.
Why would we not try just as hard to make Halloween work, and be just as courageous and reasonable about the small amount of risk involved and what we will gain in exchange for it?
Once again, it’s tough to escape the feeling that as a society, we will deploy enormous imagination and resources to make things happen in new ways when profit is on the line, but when what’s hanging in the balance is joy, comfort and normalcy for kids, we collectively shrug our shoulders and shut it all down just to be safe.