Halloween decorations are evident along business fronts in downtown Nyssa. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

Families in Malheur County on this Halloween will have to contend not only with seasonal spooks but with the very real danger presented by Covid as they decide how to celebrate the holiday.

Trick-or-treating and trunk-or-treating have both been designated “high-risk” activities by the Malheur County Health Department, the Oregon Health Authority and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite this, local grocery store managers say sales of candy are holding strong. 

“Sales are growing. We have less customers every day, but the customers buy more every visit,” said Dale Gonzalez, owner of the Grocery Outlet in Ontario. “I would say candy sales are about right where they were last year.”

Pete Peña, store manager of the M&W Market in Nyssa, was also upbeat about this year’s candy sales.

“Our candy sales have held really good,” he said. “We did plan ahead. Normally we get our candy the second week of October, but we got it two weeks earlier. And that helped us move some of the candy.”

Alan Wadley, general manager of the Red Apple Market in Ontario, explained that typically, stores order their stock at least six months in advance. That means the Halloween candy currently making its way onto shelves throughout the county was ordered back in April or March, right at the beginning of the pandemic.

“The question came out: What do we do? Is it going to be busy or not busy, are people going to buy it or not buy it?” said Mr. Wadley. “So we cut back a little bit, but [candy sales] seem to be doing better than we thought.”

Suppliers report similarly solid sales. 

A representative from Associated Food Stores Inc., the wholesaler in Salt Lake City that supplies M&W and Red Apple, wrote in an email that “in general, sales are strong,” and that although “there have been some items that were not produced because of the pandemic, there have been no other concerns about shortages.”

The steadiness of candy sales suggests that families are still planning to celebrate Halloween this year - but perhaps the ways they celebrate will adjust for the pandemic. The CDC has issued guidelines which suggest low-risk activities and ways to make trick-or-treating safer.

Tammy Lundstrom, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center, said, "Traditional trick-or-treating is high-risk because of the close contact of those handing out candy [with] trick-or-treaters. Plan ahead to make Halloween safe through low- or moderate-risk activities such as a virtual Halloween costume contest, or one-way trick-or-treating."

One-way trick-or-treating, wherein kids pick up pre-bagged treats from an unmanned station at the end of a porch or driveway, is a CDC-approved way to keep trick-or-treating safer. Other suggestions include using hand sanitizer between stops on the route, wearing a Halloween-themed cloth mask instead of a plastic costume mask, and letting candy sit for three days before consumption. 

One organization planning to run a trunk-or-treat event this year is the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Ontario. In the past, the post provided candy outside and hosted games and other activities inside.

“This year, we’re just going to do the outside part,” said Quartermaster Don Ristow.

While trunk-or-treat is characterized as a high-risk activity, the CDC specifies that keeping gatherings outdoors and with smaller crowds, as the VFW is doing, moderates the risk. Still, such gatherings are more dangerous than opting for a virtual costume party or hitting a piñata with the family. 

In “Treasure Valley Idaho Halloween,” a Facebook group designed to help families find neighborhoods where their kids can trick-or-treat, the anti-Covid sentiment is strong. The group, which has more than 1,000 members, has a warning in its description that reads “If you’re here to complain or cause problems because ‘COVID RULES ALL’.... kick rocks!”

But Brooke Cerio, a member from Meridian, Idaho, has taken on the challenge of creating a safe and spooky trick-or-treating experience at her house.

“I have hand sanitizer, spooky social distancing signs on my sidewalk featuring characters like the witches from Hocus Pocus and Freddie Krueger, and I have a claw extender that will drop the candy in the buckets,” she said.

As Covid cases rise again in Oregon, with daily cases hitting a new peak recently, no one can say how Halloween will play out this year.

“Everyone’s absolutely uncertain about what’s going to happen,” said Gonzalez, who said Halloween candy and decor sales make up an important part of his store’s usual business in October. “There’s just a ton of different variables for Covid.”

“I was concerned that people were going to be out, that maybe they would stay home. But to me it sounds like people are going to celebrate,” Peña said.

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