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At pre-Halloween fest, families look forward to main event amid COVID’s shadow

After the coronavirus pandemic brought most of last year’s Halloween festivities to a screeching halt, the stakes are high this time around.

Gabi Johnston, 3, dressed as princess, picks a pumpkin at the Trick-or-Treat Scavenger Hunt event at Sister Cities Park.
Gabi Johnston, 3, dressed as princess, picks a pumpkin at the Trick-or-Treat Scavenger Hunt event at Sister Cities Park.Read moreThomas Hengge / Staff Photographer

There were toddler tigers, princesses in purple gowns, and packs of little werewolves, all gathered by the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for magic tricks, pumpkin painting, and a Halloween-themed scavenger hunt.

But for most families at the Center City District-sponsored event at Sister Cities Park on Saturday, the gathering was just an appetizer for the main course of trick-or-treating, block parties, and costume pageants two weeks away.

And after the coronavirus pandemic halted most of last year’s Halloween festivities, the stakes are high this time around.

“We feel better about this Halloween than last year,” said Sindoor Shah, who planned to take her 6-year-old son — a lab-coated mad scientist for the night — trick-or-treating near their home in Fishtown on Halloween eve, dropping in on a few outdoor parties along the way.

Last year, Shah said, “we skipped it completely.”

A year ago this month, with COVID-19 cases rising locally and nationally and vaccines nowhere in sight, people were celebrating the holiday cautiously, if at all. The CDC had advised against “traditional trick-or-treating,” leading some Philadelphia-area leaders to discourage the door-to-door visits and other Halloween gatherings.

This year, officials are howling a different tune. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, told CNN’s State of the Union earlier this month that most Americans could safely participate in Halloween events.

The average number of new coronavirus cases in Philadelphia over the last week, 268, is actually higher than the figure from last year at this time. But this year’s case numbers appear to be holding steady or declining, while last year they were on their way to a midwinter peak.

“Particularly if you’re vaccinated, you can get out there and enjoy it,” Fauci said of this year’s Halloween on CNN.

That message seems to be coming through loud and clear.

Last year, Philadelphia’s Streets Department declined to issue any block-party permits for Halloween night, wanting to discourage gatherings where the deadly virus could spread.

This year, it’s given out permits for 43 parties citywide, higher even than the 30 approvals in 2019, according to Streets Department data.

One of this year’s permits was issued for a party on Catharine Street in the South Philadelphia neighborhood of Bella Vista. The cancellation last year broke an uninterrupted string of block parties since 2016.

“This time last year was very different. There was no vaccine on the horizon, we were heading into the winter, the whole thing,” said Chris Walls, who has been organizing the gathering to give his 8-year-old daughter and other kids on the block a safe, car-free place to goof around with their costumed friends. “This year, I feel different, and I think the neighbors do too.”

At the Sister Cities Park event Saturday, some kids and adults wore face coverings — often merely at the ready around their necks — but there were otherwise few signs of concern about the pandemic.

It was a change from last year, when face coverings were compulsory and kids were kept at a distance from one another at crafting tables and the goody-bag-pickup line, said Giavana Suraci, the Center City District marketing director overseeing the event.

Michinori Mayama, whose job recently required him to move with his family to the area from Japan, said his 5-year-old daughter (who wore a unicorn-princess costume) and 2-year-old son (dressed like Yoshi the dinosaur from the Nintendo games) were looking forward to their first time trick-or-treating, something that isn’t really done in his home country.

Mayama said that he would be more confident letting his children wander the crowded Halloween-night streets if he were able to have them vaccinated but that he was heartened by data showing that kids are less likely to contract the virus than adults.

“I think it’s important for children to enjoy Halloween,” he said.

Likewise, Matt Chavez said he plans to go trick-or-treating near his home in South Philadelphia’s Girard Park neighborhood on Halloween with his 3-year-old son, one of the many werewolves prowling the Saturday event.

“I have concerns about COVID,” he said. “But that’s life.”