RIP to these Halloween traditions thanks to COVID-19, say epidemiologists

Abby Haglage
·4 min read
Kids bob for apples during an autumn weekend celebration in the UK. Experts say that the activity may need to be retired. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)
Kids bobbing for apples is an activity that may need to be retired, experts say. (Photo: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

COVID-19 has forced Americans to reimagine so much about daily life, from the way we work and socialize to the way we celebrate holidays. But just as important as altering traditions is acknowledging which ones may need to be — in the spirit of organizational guru Marie Kondo — thanked and discarded. And Halloween, a holiday centered on spooky, slimy, sugar-filled fun, is bound to have a few activities on the chopping block.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has outlined specific guidelines for how to mitigate risks with certain irreplaceable traditions, such as trick-or-treating and haunted houses. But if the 8.7 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. have taught us anything, it’s that SARS-CoV-2 is a formidable opponent — and that viruses, in general, are not to be ignored.

To help narrow down which traditions are most problematic, Yahoo Life spoke with Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, and Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infection prevention expert at George Mason University. Here are the traditions they think we should to lay to rest.

Bobbing for apples

Apple bobbing, which entails filling a tub or other container with water and apples, likely started as a British courting ritual, but has become a mainstay of Halloween in many parts of America. But the act of dipping one’s face into a vat of water and rooting around for apples with your mouth — while undeniably thrilling — is likely unsalvageable in our new world. “I don't think we ought to do that,” says Schaffer. “That’s just like kissing, once removed. It’s a great way to share germs. I definitely think it should be retired.”

Popescu agrees. “Bobbing for apples was always a bad idea,” says Popescu. “This stems from concerns for foodborne illness and food safety concerns (dirty water, people touching things with their mouth, etc).”

Communal punch bowls

While a bowl full of “boozy witches brew” or “polyjuice potion” may seem like a fun idea, it may be time to say goodbye to communal food and drinks of any kind at this point. “Everything essentially should be single-serving or single-served,” says Popescu. “So a punch bowl is only a good idea if one person is filling cups and handing them out (with hand hygiene!)”

Schaffner agrees, saying it all depends on how it’s being served. Schaffner says that if you're "well behaved with the ladle," meaning you serve yourself punch without making contact with the punch itself, then it has the potential to be safe. “But the risky thing is who's coming together and for how long.”

Two-person costumes

If you had dreams of dressing up in a horse, cow or another two-person costume, you may want to think again. “That violates the rule of bringing people close together,” says Schaffner. “I wouldn't mix and match kids from different families, definitely not. That one seems a little risky.”

Schaffner adds that an exception could be made if it’s someone you’re living with, or have formed a small group together with — and Popescu agrees. “Two-person Halloween costumes would be ok if it’s folks from the same household,” she says. “But I would not suggest this if you’re not within the same pod.”

The mystery box

Sometimes known as mystery bowls, this tradition involves filling a covered box or bowl with an ordinary object or food that can be perceived as something spooky — such as peeled grapes representing eyes. Although the activity may be exciting to some, experts say it’s probably time to say goodbye.

“We don't want to do this,” says Schaffner. “Putting your hand into a box and rummaging around where 16 other people have been, I don't think that's a good idea.” For those who just can’t part with the tradition, Popescu has some advice: “I would encourage hand hygiene,” she says.

Toilet-papering a neighbor’s house

Earlier in the year, a dad in California went viral for thanking the teens who toilet-papered his yard (meaning covered the trees in toilet paper), saying they restored his “hope in youth.” But while the mostly-harmless prank may bring a smile to some people’s faces, the shortages of toilet paper that hit the nation during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have proven it’s not a product to be squandered.

Schaffner has strong opinions about the activity. “I hadn't thought about it being COVID related in the sense that it might a waste toilet paper, but that’s a consideration,” he says. “From my point of view, it's certainly an activity that should be discouraged. I've always thought it was pretty gross just in and of itself and as far as I'm concerned, that's a sufficient reason not to do it.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.