Parties and other large gatherings have been canceled by COVID this year, but many people are still decorating their yards for Halloween. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

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Ulrika Andersson likes to think of herself as the mayor of Halloween, a reference to one of the characters from the 1993 Disney film “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” For the past three years in Oakland’s Longfellow neighborhood, where she lives, Andersson and her neighbors have organized a communal trick-or-treat. It wasn’t an easy thing to do in an increasingly gentrified neighborhood that historically didn’t have a very active observance of the holiday. According to Andersson, in past years, many Longfellow children and families left Longfellow on Halloween to trick-or-treat in more affluent areas.

“It’s such a shame that kids have to leave our neighborhood. I always thought Halloween happens in your own neighborhood and you bring your creativity to it,” she said.

Starting a few years ago, Longfellow neighbors started letting others know they welcome trick-or-treaters at their place. They keep track using a Google spreadsheet. It’s not just giving out candy; a household can indicate whether they will display decorations like a haunted house, or whether or not their candy is allergy friendly. In their first year, 13 residences added information to the list. It’s grown every year and now 40 homes are included.

The pandemic has disrupted everything, but Andersson and her neighbors haven’t given up on observing Halloween this year. Their spreadsheet now includes information about the safety precautions houses are taking for COVID-19. All Longfellow homes on the list have committed to offering contact-free trick-or-treating and social distancing.

“I didn’t see why Halloween has to be cancelled. You have to wear a mask anyway,” said Andersson.

Longfellow is one example of how different Oakland residents are trying to salvage Halloween, especially since most business districts and annual popular attractions have cancelled their events.

Chris Jackson, the manager of the Rockridge District Association, which usually hosts a Halloween parade on College Avenue, said this year it was out of the question. 

“It was mandated by the state that we not do this. We’re trying to be good citizens. It’s pretty simple. It’s not worth the risk. Hopefully next year we’ll open back up and go about business,” Jackson said.

Some College Avenue storefronts will still have art installations. Jackson said viewing them is self-guided and it should be easy for people to socially distance while taking in the displays.

In the Laurel District and Montclair Village, residents are encouraged to walk around and enjoy the variety of Halloween and fall-themed decorations in shop windows, said Daniel Swafford, who is the executive director of both the Laurel District and Montclair Village business associations.

“Come out and enjoy a community that still cares about being uplifted. Local businesses could use that extra gift purchase or dine out meal. Bring costumes if you want,” he said.

In a Montclair art contest, kids and adults alike can download a template at montclairvillage.com and submit a Halloween drawing to be displayed on storefronts.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Bay Area health officials are encouraging the public to participate in low-risk activities. Mostly, this means staying at home. But the guidelines are tiered with low, moderate, and high-risk activities. Traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating should be avoided, but small groups, outside, such as an open-air costume parade, where people are distanced more than six feet apart and are wearing masks, is considered less risky.

“We didn’t think we could do a Temescal trick-or-treat that would comply with Alameda County guidelines,” said Shifra de Benedictis-Kessner, executive director of the Temescal Telegraph Business Improvement District. Temescal normally hosts a Halloween event that attracts thousands. “We are encouraging folks to support local businesses or they will not be here when COVID is over,” she said. “And we realize they need to get out during the pandemic. It’s a balance.”

Last Sunday, Temescal businesses held an outdoor “Picnic on Telegraph” to draw people back to the neighborhood, but there are no plans for Halloween.

For families, Speer Family Farms has an Uptown Oakland pumpkin patch, and the Oakland Zoo is hosting “Boo at the Zoo.” Both events are observing COVID-19 precautions, as is the Piedmont Avenue Pumpkin Patch, minus their traditional haunted house.

For Adults, The Avenue Bar has been hosting outdoor horror movie nights, including a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show from 5 p.m. to midnight on Halloween. Attendees must wear masks, keep appropriate distance, and follow other COVID-19 precautions.

Also considered a moderate-risk activity by the county is one-way trick-or-treating, which is what Katy Liang and other parents in the Oakmore neighborhood are planning for their kids. She said she will have goodie bags ready on a table for kids to pick up. Her neighborhood is also planning a socially-distanced outdoor costume parade.

“We have a two-year-old and five-year-old. It’s one of the most exciting events for them.” Liang said. “We just wanted to come up with an idea that was safe enough and to still have memories.”

Oaklanders can download Treat Map to find neighborhood events. Lots of neighborhoods are also organizing their Halloween events over NextDoor.

In Emily Pacheco’s Glenview neighborhood, a few dozen houses have indicated on the Treat Map that they will either have house decorations or a costume parade.

Pacheco said she and many of her neighbors are also fashioning pipe candy chutes to deliver treats from a distance of about eight to 10 feet.

“They are looking forward to it. They’re excited about their costumes,” Pacheco said about Glenview children. “And wearing a mask is more comfortable for them than for adults.”

There are risks, but Pacheco said, “each family has to do what they feel is safe at this time.”

Pacheco’s kids, who are six and seven-years-old, are part of a learning pod with three other children, so they can safely interact with each other. This year, the kids are dressing up as a ninja, a dinosaur, a chicken, and DJ Marshmello; and the toddler in the group will be donning a little black robe with a lace collar from Etsy, glasses, and hair done up like the recently passed Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

“We’re crossing our fingers she’ll keep it on for at least one picture,” Pacheco said about her child’s costume.

Saadia Malik is a multi-media news reporter and has covered the the Bay Area for more than 15 years. She has contributed to KQED, KPFA, Metro Silicon Valley​, ​Free Speech Radio News, Silicon Valley Community Newspapers, San Francisco Bay Guardian​, and news outlets outside the Bay Area. She graduated from San Jose State University.