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Coronavirus has Tampa Bay rethinking Halloween parties, trick-or-treating

It was always a myth that trick-or-treating was dangerous, but this year a new scare changes things.

Halloween in 2020 is getting infected by the coronavirus in many ways — just not medical ones.

Cities are rethinking public events. There’s a run on costumes that look like hazmat suits. Treat bags are being made with extended arms to collect candy from a safe distance.

For more than a decade, families in Pinellas Park lined up by the hundreds to take part in what was billed as a “safe" trail of treats and candy on Halloween night in England Brothers Park.

But this year, the idea of having up to 2,000 people rushing into the park doesn’t seem so safe, said Lana Beck, city spokeswoman. So it’s going to be a drive-thru trick or treat experience. Baskets of pre-wrapped candies will be handed out to cars as they cruise through the park. It’s an ironic twist for an event planned around safety.

“Now it is doubly safe,” Beck said. “It’s treats you can trust plus the safety precautions we are taking for the virus.”

Trick or treating was never an unsafe activity. Poisoned candy is an urban legend that has never happened, not once, in the history of Halloween, according to a researcher who has studied reports of Halloween crimes dating back to the 1950s. Reports of mischief have either turned out to be a hoax or, in the case of a father who took out big life insurance policies on his kid, were an attempt to cover up a crime by blaming anonymous candy poisoners.

But the notion of packing a lot of people together in a park or at a Halloween party is a serious concern during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In past years, like this photo from 2005, a gaggle of costumed children would gather to catch handfuls of candy and small toys being tossed into the crowd during the city of Largo's Halloween Spooktacular event at Largo Central Park in Largo. This year it is going to be a drive-through trick or treat event. [ BRIAN BLANCO | Times (2005) ]

Having a safe Halloween is a debate going on across the country right now. Los Angeles County officials at first banned trick-or-treating activities outright, before revising their stance to tell residents it’s not recommended.

Busch Gardens and ZooTampa at Lowry Park are going ahead with their annual after-hours Halloween events, focusing on outdoor scare zones. But Universal Orlando canceled this year’s edition of Halloween Horror Nights, and Walt Disney World also called off its after-hours Halloween party at the Magic Kingdom.

Some recreation departments in the Tampa Bay area are still waiting to make a decision on their events. St. Petersburg has canceled its annual Field of Screams haunt in a nature preserve that has been put on for the last 14 years by TASCO, the city’s teen program. But other Halloween events the city usually conducts in its parks are still under consideration, a city spokesman said.

Related: Busch Gardens will produce socially distant Howl-o-Scream

Tampa, which last year hosted a trick-or-treat trail along the RiverWalk, is also waiting. “Events are being called two weeks out,” said Tampa spokeswoman Ashley Bauman.

But Largo, like Pinellas Park, is converting its Halloween night of trick or treating in Largo Central Park to a drive-thru event. They have renamed it: Drive O Ween Spooktacular.

“This year we will be doing things a little differently to promote safety for our guests and our staff, volunteers and sponsors,” a city announcement said. “Guests will stay in their car and drive through our decorated themed areas, decorated by our city departments and local businesses.”

As for home parties, the Florida Department of Health recommends that gatherings not exceed 10 people who remain spaced six feet apart. So it will likely be who the kids go trick-or-treating with that is more of a concern, rather than worrying about getting a piece of candy from a neighbor at a safe distance.

Scientists don’t think that surface contamination is a primary spreader of the coronavirus.

“Getting a piece of candy from a house, bringing it home, and then eating it, I think that’s less problematic,” Dr. Sandra Kesh, an infectious disease specialist and the deputy medical director of New York’s Westmed Medical Group, told USA Today.

The beaked mask for a "Plague Doctor" costume is a popular cornavirus-themed costume this year at the Spirit Halloween stores. It is based on the real get-up that 17th century doctors wore during the plague in France and Italy. [ SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE | Times ]

Some recommendations from health officials include grab-and go bags of candy as an option to reduce the number of hands pawing through a candy bowl. Or have a bottle of hand sanitizer set up next to the candy bowl for kids to use when retrieving candy.

At the Spirit Halloween pop-up store in Pinellas Park, there are signs of Halloween getting a 2020 sheen. You’ll find face coverings available for $7.99 that have a costume flair, coming in patterns of skeletons or creepy clowns.

A face covering gets a costume flair at the Spirit Halloween pop-up store in Pinellas Park, where skeleton and creepy clown bandanas sell for $7.99. [ SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE | Times ]

The bio hazard costume made to look like a hazmat suit is already sold out, though the store hopes to restock the $39.99 costume before the end of the Halloween season.

There are a wide variety of Loot Scoop bags available this year at the Spirit Halloween pop-up stores. They are $7.99 so kids can use an extended rod to hold out a candy bag to retrieve treats from a distance. [ SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE | Times ]

There are also a wide variety of Loot Scoop bags available this year at the Spirit stores. They are $7.99 and let kids use an extended rod to hold out a candy bag to retrieve treats from a distance.