As summer wound down, Phoenixville Mayor Peter Urscheler was hearing the same question over and over: What’s Halloween going to look like during the pandemic?
Many elderly residents, Urscheler said, wanted to support their neighbors' children but were anxious about being exposed to the coronavirus. Parents were already pondering the safest way to distribute candy.
“It’s not surprising that it’s such a hot issue, because we miss each other,” the mayor said. “We miss seeing our neighbors. We miss seeing our friends. We miss seeing our community lively.”
By late September, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged “traditional trick-or-treating," Urscheler made a similar call for Phoenixville, announcing the Chester County borough would not recommend trick-or-treating this year.
Because the announcement wasn’t in the form of an ordinance, there will be no repercussions if families decide to go door-to-door anyway. The borough only asks that residents respect their neighbors — whether or not they decide to celebrate.
Across the Philadelphia region, local officials have grappled with whether to play the role of Halloween party poopers. Most have erred on the side of letting families decide for themselves whether they’re comfortable trick-or-treating.
While there is cause for concern as coronavirus case counts rise in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, many parents and officials have pointed out the safety of Halloween relative to other holidays and events. Trick-or-treating takes place outdoors, where the risk of virus transmission is lower than in indoor spaces and where people can easily social distance.
This week, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced that “Halloween is on" in the Garden State, but candy should be distributed safely and everyone should wear a non-costume mask.
Philadelphia followed course a day later, with Health Commissioner Thomas Farley saying the city would not cancel Halloween.
Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has not issued a yea or nay vote on the holiday.
“The Department of Health recommends that Pennsylvanians follow CDC guidance,” the commonwealth said in a statement, “and consider the current spread of COVID-19 in their communities when establishing plans for safe participation in Halloween festivities.”
In West Chester, which is under a state of emergency due to rising coronavirus cases among university students, Mayor Dianne Herrin is leaving it up to residents to decide whether they want to trick-or-treat.
“At some point, we have to do our best to understand the science," Herrin said, “and make decisions for ourselves and take some personal responsibility."
She, too, has been inundated with requests for guidance. Considering people have already canceled or amended other holiday celebrations, why has Halloween struck such a chord?
“I think because it’s fundamentally about children,” she said, “and I think it’s very hard for parents to deny their children these long-standing traditions that bring our families a lot of joy.”
In Middletown Township, Bucks County, the Board of Supervisors says Halloween can safely happen there. It’s a recommendation echoed by the county’s Health Department, which this week put out guidance allowing trick-or-treating with precautions.
“If we can give our community something like normal, why wouldn’t we do that?” said Amy Strouse, the board’s vice chair.
As a mother of three young children, Strouse said she knows many Bucks County parents are exhaling at the news. Since August, she said, she heard folks say, “Oh, Halloween, this is going to be another thing they take away from our kids."
Not only is Halloween easy to celebrate outside and distanced, she said, but society already recognizes a turned-off porch light as a sign that someone isn’t partaking. This year, it can serve as an easy out for residents with health concerns.
In Collingswood, Camden County, borough leaders, who playfully call themselves “the Boo Crew,” have organized virtual and socially distant events beginning Oct. 11. They aren’t putting out recommendations for neighborhood trick-or-treating, said Mayor James Maley, but they’ve canceled trick-or-treating in the Haddon Avenue business district, a tradition that’s usually “a mob scene.”
Maley said he thinks many families will take their kids trick-or-treating with masks, but he suspects they will find fewer houses where residents are comfortable giving out candy.
In Gloucester Township, people are advised to “use their best judgment” when it comes to trick-or-treating. Mayor David Mayer said he hopes residents will respect their neighbors' decisions.
In Delaware County, Upper Darby Mayor Barbarann Keffer said she thinks residents will take part in a safe, socially distant, and masked-up night.
“They’re going to want to go out and have the kids walk around the neighborhood,” she said. "I don’t know how different it will look, to be honest.”
Even before the pandemic, Keffer said she often stood at the end of her driveway, instead of in the doorway, to distribute candy. Halloween is a creative holiday, she added, and people will be especially willing to adjust their usual routine if it means the day can be celebrated safely.
After all, she said, Halloween can be a way for neighbors to connect.
That’s important, "especially now,” she said. "We need something to look forward to.”