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In the pandemic, Halloween is the latest culture war

“A lot of people are saying, ‘I’m not doing it.’ ... Then, other people are like, ‘It’s not that big of a deal! Can’t the kids have just one thing?’ ” It’s causing conflict, but sparking creativity.

Kelli Leemon fixes the thestral decoration that is part of her house transformation for Halloween in South Philly.
Kelli Leemon fixes the thestral decoration that is part of her house transformation for Halloween in South Philly.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published guidance for Halloween celebrations: Traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating — or even an outdoor “trunk-or-treat” event — is a high-risk activity, the CDC said.

For Ellery Mims, whose Cheltenham Village neighborhood is usually awash with hundreds of costumed candy-seekers on Oct. 31, that guidance was decisive.

“Please listen to the CDC!” said Mims, 37. “They’re doctors.”

But on neighborhood Facebook groups and the social app Nextdoor, “It’s contentious," she said. “A lot of people are saying, ‘I’m not doing it,’ or, ‘I’m putting out pre-bagged candy.’ Then, other people are like, ‘It’s not that big of a deal! Can’t the kids have just one thing?’ ”

State and local authorities have largely declined either to sanction or prohibit trick-or-treating this year. So, just as with nearly every other aspect of life in this patience-testing pandemic, people are making their own judgment calls about what’s safe — often taking in the same information about how the coronavirus spreads and arriving at wildly different conclusions.

» READ MORE: 9 medical experts on how their kids are safely celebrating Halloween

That’s causing conflict — but also sparking creativity, as people are figuring out new ways to share joy, frights and empty calories with friends and neighbors.

To Mims, the thought of throngs of kids pushing past each other for candy during a pandemic made for an actual Halloween horror. So she’s organizing an off-season Easter egg hunt in her backyard, inviting 10 or so kids over to run around outside in costumes and look for candy. There will be a box of disposable masks and bottles of hand sanitizer, balloon garlands and orange string lights, and Mims’ family in Star Wars costumes.

Others are committed to giving out candy, while minimizing contact points for tiny, sticky hands. They are strapping tubes to their porch railings, so they can slide candy bars down from a safe distance. They are packaging treats into goody bags that can be hung from tree branches strewn with dramatic cobwebs. They are even tinkering with ways to make candy airborne.

Danielle Gleason, 34, of Elkins Park, has contemplated throwing candy at kids, for a piñata-like effect. More likely, she said, she’ll pick just one or two types of candies and spread them on a table, so kids can come take what they want without rummaging around. She’ll take her 4-year-old daughter, Lucy, trick-or-treating, and plans to skip only houses where people are not wearing masks or distancing.

As for the CDC warning, she said, “I haven’t trusted the CDC in quite some time at this point — so I don’t particularly care what the CDC is saying.”

» READ MORE: Most Philly-area towns are letting parents decide whether kids can trick-or-treat

Melrose Park residents Sherri and David Kushin have been fine-tuning their plans to give out candy with a long-handled grabber tool. Through trial and error they figured out that it wouldn’t hold a single candy bar, but could pick up a bag of bundled candies nicely.

“We want to continue whatever traditions are left this year,” said Sherri Kushin, 65.

And in Jenkintown, Veen Huffnagle, 37, is considering a candy graveyard, with full-size candy bars standing on her front lawn like chocolate tombstones.

But she won’t take her own 5-year-old, Chloe, trick-or-treating, she said. “When you put candy in front of little kids, self-control goes out of the window. Usually, they’re unwrapping it as they go.” Instead, she’s planning a backyard candy hunt, with glow sticks illuminating the way to bags of hidden treats.

Kelli Leemon, 48, of South Philadelphia, is looking at this unusual Halloween as just one more opportunity to get creative. Her elaborate Halloween displays have turned the front of her compact rowhouse into a haunted pirate ship, a ghostly corn field and, this year, a dark take on the Harry Potter universe, complete with a carriage drawn by a homemade thestral, a ghostly creature cobbled craftily together with a prop horse skeleton, pool noodles, spackle and black pantyhose. The hope — if she can pull it off — is that an owl on a zip line will deliver bags of candy to trick-or-treaters.

Leemon said she briefly contemplated canceling this year, but decided, “I can’t not put out my Halloween displays.” The beauty of the holiday, for her: “You get to step out of yourself and be something else for a night. Be whatever you want to be.”

For those committed to a traditional trick-or-treating experience, though, this pandemic Halloween poses a ghoulish problem.

After all, the individualistic, if-you’re-scared-stay-home jeers that have reverberated through this pandemic don’t pack the same punch in a holiday tradition that relies on widespread, communal participation.

Villanova resident Rose Cameron Streko recognized that challenge early. A mother of three with a 17-month-old foster son, Streko was committed to making Halloween happen for neighborhood kids. On Oct. 1, she began placing flyers in the mailboxes of about 150 neighbors, inviting them to join her in setting up tables with candy on the end of their driveways. She even offered to make tea-light luminaries for anyone who needed help lighting the way. At her own house, she plans to set out the candy in an orderly fashion, along with abundant hand sanitizer. She’ll enforce a rule: “If you touch it, you take it.”

For Streko, 48, it’s about reclaiming joy in a bleak time. “My anxiety has been so through the roof that I thought: I’m not going to sit in the house and be afraid on Halloween,” she said.

So far, Streko has received enthusiastic responses from neighbors, and also irritable ones. “I got three messages last night that ‘I’m not sitting outside for three hours in the cold.’"

“The world is divided,” she said. “It just shocks me the amount of people that have negative comments on something that’s really a positive thing I’m trying to do.”

But this year, even some serious Halloween lovers are considering turning off the porch light and pulling down the blinds.

In Moorestown, Jessica Hanlon had visions of turning her backyard into a Halloween candy hunt, complete with a garden shed made spooky with a fog machine and strobe light, as if haunted by the ghost of an ill-fated bar mitzvah DJ.

But as local COVID-19 case counts started rising, Hanlon, 33, decided it wasn’t worth the risk.

It was a decision she made mournfully.

“You always remember Halloween," Hanlon said. “It’s a sense of community. You get to know your neighbors, to reach out, to be friendly to one another ... except for the people who give you a toothbrush or an apple.”