When Trick-or-Treating Is Scary, for Real

Each Halloween, Holly Bonner and her two daughters would spend up to three hours trick-or-treating at houses and businesses before returning home on Staten Island to pass out candy themselves.

But this Halloween, the Bonners are not leaving the house.

It’s too scary out there.

“If you’re going to have people in these big clusters close together, that just doesn’t seem like a safe option,” said Ms. Bonner, whose daughters are 6 and 7. “It would really concern me.”

Like so many other plans this pandemic year, Halloween, as people have known it, is canceled. Other holidays, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, can be celebrated among family and close friends, but a traditional Halloween is dependent on placing a great deal of trust in complete strangers.

Parents allow their children to go door-to-door to get candy. Adults get all dressed up and go to costume parties, often not quite knowing who is beneath a mask.

In a pandemic year, would-be revelers in New York and across the country are grappling with how to celebrate during a pandemic that requires social distancing and sanitizing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Dozens of cities across the country have advised against celebrating the holiday in conventional ways, throwing in-person festivities and age-old traditions aside in favor of subdued celebrations. Some towns in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Texas, among other states, have banned door-to-door trick-or-treating altogether.

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a news briefing that Halloween would still be celebrated in New York City, trick-or-treating and all. He stressed that the frantic searches for candy and chocolate bars should take place outdoors, as opposed to within the hallways of apartment buildings, and with face coverings worn over any costume masks.

But he expressed hope that Halloween would bring some relief to children weary of the toll of the pandemic. “It can be exciting for our youngest New Yorkers,” the mayor said. “And they deserve it. They deserve it after everything they’ve been through.”

But this week, the city’s virus positivity rate is up, and Mr. de Blasio emphasized that large parties would not be acceptable and that unsafe gatherings would be broken up.

Some parents were ready to throw up their hands, although they said they understood the public health risks of trying to have a regular Halloween.

Christian Foster ranked Halloween as one of the favorite holidays of his two school-aged children. “These past six months have pretty much been disappointment after disappointment, and you don’t want this to be another, ‘Maybe next year we’ll be happy again,’” said Mr. Foster, who lives in the Bronx. “But we also have to be real about the safety of it. ”

In the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, Ted Ross said he did not even begin thinking about plans for Halloween until a week or two ago. “It’s just not a pleasant thought,” he said. “It’s like another thing my kids are going to miss out on, that kind of feeling.”

Mr. Ross said his three children will be spending the holiday with an extended group of friends instead of trick-or-treating in their area. He said he is renting out a nearby outdoor space for a small Halloween gathering, splitting the costs with three or four other families.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that traditional trick-or-treating and attending crowded haunted houses are “higher risk” activities, while open-air costume parties and outdoor movie nights are designated as “moderate risk.”

ImageDespite cancellations of trick-or-treating and parties, a steady stream of customers have been buying costumes at Spirit Halloween in Astoria.
Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

Other annual in-person festivities like large a children’s march in Park Slope and a family-oriented parade in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens were also called off.

Some colleges in the region have also warned their students against partying over the next few days, fearing that after past holiday weekends caused spikes in virus cases, Halloween could do the same.

Several households in residential neighborhoods have crafted makeshift chutes to distribute candy from afar. Others are assembling individual bags of sweets to avoid direct contact with the young customers at their doorsteps. Some residents of apartment complexes are still taking part in traditional trick-or-treating, despite the mayor’s instruction, posting sign-up sheets for people who want to hand out treats.

Still, some parents across the city said they were reluctant to allow their children to take part in regular festivities.

Ms. Bonner, the Staten Island mother, said she was at a higher risk of serious illness if she contracts the virus because she has bladder cancer. She and her husband will be dressing up as characters from Scooby-Doo, sending their daughters through an indoor scavenger hunt and playing Halloween-themed games like “candy corn bowling” and “toss the ring on the spider.”

But for young adults, the holiday could look like any other Halloween. On social media, a number of parties and celebrations at “secret locations” in New York City have been announced for the weekend.

Dea Pierre, 30, said she had no plans to go out. Ms. Pierre, who lives in Crown Heights, said she and her friends typically make a “full night” of the holiday, planning out matching dresses, traveling around the city and stopping by parades and parties.

”We were still optimistic a few months ago,” Ms. Pierre said. “But as we got closer to October, we realized we don’t feel comfortable doing any of that. And it felt like it wasn’t responsible to do that during a pandemic.”

Even with the adjusted celebrations, Party City and Spirit Halloween shops in Manhattan and Queens during the week leading up to the holiday were filled with energized crowds. At some locations, customers were even lined up outside and faced waits because the stores, allowing for social distancing, had hit their maximum capacities.

And at one Spirit Halloween on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it was evident that for some of the youngest celebrants, the magic of Halloween would not be lost even during a pandemic.

In between racks of witches’ brooms and zombie makeup kits, an eight-year-old boy ran up to his mother on Wednesday afternoon with his hands full of costume bags and props.

“I can’t decide,” the boy, Myles, shouted to his mother, Melissa Ramon of Harlem.

After a short back-and-forth, the two entered the checkout line. “Apparently, he’s going to be three things for Halloween,” Ms. Ramon said with a laugh. She showed off her son’s choices of a Freddy Fazbear costume, a Captain America shield and a slew of unrelated accessories.

Despite the limited festivities this year and a normally more selective costume budget, she said, helping her son celebrate the holiday during hard times was “worth it.”

Myles left the store beaming.

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