As COVID-19 Brings More Tricks Than Treats, Families Get Creative To Celebrate The Holidays

Halloween, Dia De Los Muertos Adaptations A Preview For COVID-Altered Winter Holidays

The Rauch kids, Grayson (left, age 4) and Zelda (right, age 2) “trick-or-treat” by looking for hidden bags of candy in a park near their house in Waukesha. Photo courtesy of Michelle Rauch. 

Michelle Rauch had grand plans for Halloween this year.

Her son, age 4, was at the right age to start trick-or-treating. Her daughter turned 2 on Oct. 30, prompting spooky birthday celebration ideas.

“I was like, ‘We’ll go trick-or-treating, we’ll do those kids’ haunted houses that they’ve got, do all the costumes. That kind of stuff,” she said.

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COVID-19, however, forced Rauch to make alternate plans. Her family lives in Waukesha County, where COVID-19 activity is “very high,” according to the state Department of Health Services. Nearly 1,000 students in the School District of Waukesha are quarantined due to possible coronavirus exposure.

Although the county allowed trick-or-treating, the Rauch family skipped the traditional celebration and created their own. Rauch works part-time as a certified nursing assistant in home health care, so she’s been trying to minimize the family’s contact with other people to keep her clients and coworkers safe.

Instead of a birthday celebration rolling into an introduction to trick-or-treating, she took a page from the Easter celebration playbook.

“It just hit me, like, we do Easter egg hunts during April. Why don’t I get some goody bags and hide them around the park?” she said. “I’ll let them find the candy themselves. They can wear the costumes, they can have their bags, they can have some kind of experience and not have to potentially be exposed with all these other families.”

Bagging her own sweets also offered another advantage for Rauch and her husband — they get to pick the candy, and are able to opt for lower-sugar options that won’t leave their kids bouncing off the walls of their two-bedroom apartment.

“We live on the second floor and I’m sorry for the man who lives beneath me, because my children like to run out their energy around the dining room table,” she said, laughing.

As Wisconsin heads into late fall and winter with surging COVID-19 cases and nearly full hospital units, Halloween may have offered a preview of how Wisconsinites will adapt annual family holiday traditions to keep contact with others to a minimum. Although DHS discouraged trick-or-treating, and some county health authorities warned against it as well, others left it up to parents to decide.

At a COVID-19 media briefing the day before the holiday where kids and guardians typically flock to the streets, Gov. Tony Evers discouraged Wisconsinites from doing anything that would bring them into contact with those outside their immediate household.

“As we head into Halloween weekend, a time where many would ordinarily be out and about in a different sort of face mask, please stay home,” he said. “Avoid any in-person parties or get-togethers. Don’t go to other homes or have people in your own home who are outside of your immediate household.”

He recommended holding costume parties or watching scary movies over Zoom, visiting a drive-through haunted house, or trick-or-treating virtually.

Malia Jones, an epidemiologist with the Applied Population Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was on WPR’s “The Morning Show” earlier in October to talk about the Centers for Disease Control’s Halloween guidance. She noted trick-or-treating as most people know it — big groups of kids bunching together and in close contact with the people handing out candy — is a no-go in terms of COVID-19 safety.

“But I think for once, epidemiologists have some good news here: It’s pretty easy to modify trick-or-treat so that it is very safe,” she said.

She said for those handing out candy, the key is to get some distance from the kids by using tongs or grabbers to drop candy in, wearing a mask, and handing out candy outside instead of from inside their doorway. For kids, masks — not scary Halloween masks, but coronavirus masks that cover the nose and mouth — are key.

“There are a lot of ways to do Halloween traditions outdoors that are really very low-risk,” she said. “Haunted forests are fine; corn mazes, pumpkin patches are all OK, too.”

Jen Martinez, in Appleton, also opted for stay-at-home Halloween plans.

Martinez has six kids, ranging in age from four months to 13 years old. She said the older kids had been hearing about COVID-19 in school, which they’re attending virtually, and understood when Martinez and her partner decided against trick-or-treating.

“They were actually OK, as long as they had costumes, and candy, and we didn’t completely skip it,” she said.

They played Loteria, a Mexican card game similar to bingo that was a mainstay of Sundays with their grandma after church in the pre-coronavirus era, competing for candy instead of the usual quarters. They ordered Halloween costumes from Amazon, and put on Halloween movies. Martinez said she, like Rauch, had initially planned a candy scavenger hunt.

“The boys vetoed that. They were like, ‘I don’t want to have to go out and find it,’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘What about hiding it in the house, and giving out clues?’ And they were like, ‘No, just give us the candy!’”[[{“fid”:”1373706″,”view_mode”:”full_width”,”fields”:{“format”:”full_width”,”alignment”:”right”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3ETrinni%20%22Ruth%20Baby%20Ginsburg%22%20Picado%20submitted%20her%20costume%20to%20the%20youngest%20age%20bracket%20of%20Milwaukee-based%20Rainbow%20Booksellers’%20virtual%20costume%20contest.%26nbsp%3B%3Cem%3EPhoto%20by%20Hannah%20Gleeson.%3C%2Fem%3E%3C%2Fp%3E%0A”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:false,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:false},”type”:”media”,”field_deltas”:{“3”:{“format”:”full_width”,”alignment”:”right”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3ETrinni%20%22Ruth%20Baby%20Ginsburg%22%20Picado%20submitted%20her%20costume%20to%20the%20youngest%20age%20bracket%20of%20Milwaukee-based%20Rainbow%20Booksellers’%20virtual%20costume%20contest.%26nbsp%3B%3Cem%3EPhoto%20by%20Hannah%20Gleeson.%3C%2Fem%3E%3C%2Fp%3E%0A”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:false,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:false}},”link_text”:false,”attributes”:{“class”:”media-element file-full-width media-wysiwyg-align-right”,”data-delta”:”3″}}]]

Community institutions stepped up with some socially distant spooky solutions, as well. Places ranging from Rainbow Bookstore in Milwaukee to McIntosh Public Library in Viroqua held virtual costume contests, where kids could submit photos of their costumes to compete for prizes.

Rainbow Booksellers has been sponsoring its neighborhood costume contest for its whole 26-year history on Vliet Street, said organizer Mame McCully, whose parents own the store. It’s led to long-running friendly rivalries between neighbors, who compete over the best costumes. The virtual contest is split between five categories — one for adults, and four broken down by age group for kids, with results to be announced Sunday evening.

“We’re seeing some really nice creativity, which is a lot of fun,” McCully said. “They’re not just coming in their costume, like they always have, but they’re also kind of setting the scene for their photo.”

[[{“fid”:”1373571″,”view_mode”:”full_width”,”fields”:{“format”:”full_width”,”alignment”:”left”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3EThe%20Rauch%20kids%20run%20around%20a%20park%20near%20their%20home%20in%20Waukesha%20hunting%20for%20Halloween%20candy.%26nbsp%3B%3Cem%3EPhoto%20courtesy%20of%20Michelle%20Rauch%3C%2Fem%3E%3C%2Fp%3E%0A”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:false,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:false},”type”:”media”,”field_deltas”:{“2”:{“format”:”full_width”,”alignment”:”left”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3EThe%20Rauch%20kids%20run%20around%20a%20park%20near%20their%20home%20in%20Waukesha%20hunting%20for%20Halloween%20candy.%26nbsp%3B%3Cem%3EPhoto%20courtesy%20of%20Michelle%20Rauch%3C%2Fem%3E%3C%2Fp%3E%0A”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:false,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:false}},”link_text”:false,”attributes”:{“class”:”media-element file-full-width media-wysiwyg-align-left”,”data-delta”:”2″}}]]The added creativity in scene-setting for the virtual costume contest wasn’t the only positive effect of having to change plans due to COVID-19. Rauch, in Waukesha, said the hunt was such a hit for Grayson, 4, and Zelda, 2, that she’d like to make it a tradition, pandemic or not.

“I think they had more fun than regular trick-or-treating,” she said. “Both kids even shared their treasure with my husband and myself.”

In Antigo, the first town in central Wisconsin to cancel city-sponsored trick-or-treating, the local library, parks and recreation department and local organizations set up a drive-in move night at the Langlade County Fairgrounds. It, too, included a costume contest.

Some of the state’s haunted houses adapted as well, requiring masks for customers and staff or moving their spooky setting completely outdoors.

Masks and distancing came into play for another community-oriented weekend holiday — Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which started Sunday. The holiday celebrates the lives of people who have died, and typically revolves around family and community getting together, exactly the kinds of gatherings that are giving public health officials pause.

The Milwaukee community center Latino Arts Inc. marks Dia de los Muertos by having artists and school groups create altars with “ofrendas,” or offerings to people who have died, and other installations for its gallery each year. This year, it staggered artists’ time in the gallery to minimize the chances of spreading COVID-19. Its open gallery hours, usually drop-in, now require pre-registration to limit the amount of people in the room at any one time.

Jacobo Lovo, managing artistic director for Latino Arts, said COVID-19 restrictions have actually helped the center expand its reach to more students than usual through virtual tours.

“The sense of community has definitely been redefined, but (COVID-19) has definitely not stopped us from connecting with people,” he said. “We have developed some best practices throughout this whole ordeal that have worked out really well, and I think we’ll adopt them in one form or the other as we move forward.”[[{“fid”:”1373561″,”view_mode”:”full_width”,”fields”:{“format”:”full_width”,”alignment”:”right”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3EThe%20Dia%20de%20los%20Muertos%20exhibit%20at%20Latino%20Arts%20Inc%20features%20%22ofrendas%22%20to%20family%2C%20friends%20and%20community%20members%20who%20have%20died.%20This%20year%2C%20some%20altars%20feature%20people%20who%20died%20of%20COVID-19.%26nbsp%3B%3Cem%3EMadeline%20Fox%2FWPR%3C%2Fem%3E%3C%2Fp%3E%0A”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”Dia de los Muertos ofrendas at Latino Arts Inc”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:false},”type”:”media”,”field_deltas”:{“1”:{“format”:”full_width”,”alignment”:”right”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3EThe%20Dia%20de%20los%20Muertos%20exhibit%20at%20Latino%20Arts%20Inc%20features%20%22ofrendas%22%20to%20family%2C%20friends%20and%20community%20members%20who%20have%20died.%20This%20year%2C%20some%20altars%20feature%20people%20who%20died%20of%20COVID-19.%26nbsp%3B%3Cem%3EMadeline%20Fox%2FWPR%3C%2Fem%3E%3C%2Fp%3E%0A”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”Dia de los Muertos ofrendas at Latino Arts Inc”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:false}},”link_text”:false,”attributes”:{“alt”:”Dia de los Muertos ofrendas at Latino Arts Inc”,”class”:”media-element file-full-width media-wysiwyg-align-right”,”data-delta”:”1″}}]]

COVID-19 has also affected the displays themselves. Lovo pointed out one ofrenda created by illustrator Whitney Salgado included family members who had died from COVID-19. Nearby, a photo exhibit by Janice Mahlberg was entitled “In the time of A Pandemic, Remembrance Is More Important Than Ever.”

“We could not agree with her more,” Lovo said. “It’s important to still share culture, and build cultural bridges, even though they might be happening through a video conferencing call.”