Has COVID-19 canceled Halloween? Not quite, but celebrations are different this year.

25October 2020

Bob Butterbrodt grew up on a street in St. Paul that hosts thousands of children and parents on Halloween night each year.

Now, he’s a dad living on the same Macalester-Groveland block and even his young daughters knew Halloween would be different this year.

“Lucy (age 6) got there before we did,” Butterbrodt said. “She said, ‘Oh, I suppose because of the coronavirus, we’re not gonna have Halloween.’ Like, yeah, that’s spot on there.”

Julie Shumaker, a resident of the block, said she files a petition to the city each year to close the street to keep the celebrations safe for visitors and trick-or-treaters. However, her email asking residents whether she should file for a petition this year was met with a resounding “No.”

The Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation in September to halt trick-or-treating or hosting large parties. In Anoka, where the 100th year of festivities is being celebrated, Halloween’s organizers reworked many of their events in order to follow these guidelines.


Butterbrodt and Shumaker’s Mac-Groveland block had a different plan.

Residents agreed to refrain from doing anything that would attract visitors. No front-yard decorations. No porch lights. No giving out candy to strangers.

Shumaker said they may even put out a sign telling visitors they’ve canceled festivities.

“I mean, it’s an extreme kind of a thing to do … and it hurts,” said Margaret “Peg” Marrinan, a retired Ramsey County judge and Butterbrodt’s mother. “It’s just another fatality of the virus.”

Marrinan was one of the people who helped start their annual Halloween tradition. Around 1985, Marrinan and other neighbors talked about having a child-friendly Halloween so parents would know their children were safe to trick-or-treat on their block.

Eventually, word-of-mouth spread, leading visitors outside of the neighborhood to attend the celebrations while residents started to put more work into their decorations.

“Most of the neighbors go full bore,” Ross Callahan said. “It’s like walking through a theme park for Halloween.”

People have decorated their houses around themes like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Alice in Wonderland,” or even created a voting booth that only kids 12 and under could enter.

“We don’t advertise, and we don’t tell people outside the block to come,” said Mary Callahan, Ross Callahan’s aunt. “People have just figured it out through the years.”

Mary Callahan compared the massive gathering of trick-or-treaters, adults in costumes, pets and Morris dancers to the Minnesota State Fair.

“I’ll stand out there for two hours,” Shumaker said. “I mean, you can’t even go back in the house. There’s so many people coming at one time, you need one person to refill your bowl and another to give the candy away.”

The question on people’s minds for this year was: What’s the alternative?

Ross Callahan’s family considered holding a small tailgate to let younger kids still have the chance to trick-or-treat, as well as holding a Zoom meeting with extended relatives to celebrate.

Lucy Butterbrodt, 6, adds the finishing touches to decorations that resemble the COVID-19 virus, the scariest thing the Butterbrodt family could think of, as she and her family set up their Halloween display at their St. Paul home on Saturday, Oct 10, 2020. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Bob Butterbrodt said he still wants to make Halloween special for his daughters.

“We’re likely going to do just something in our back yard with the kids, set up some of the decorations and then have a bonfire and tell some spooky stories … and still try to make it kind of a Halloween experience for them,” Butterbrodt said. “But minus the throngs of people who are usually here.”

His daughters are certainly still dressing up for the occasion. Lucy said she wanted to dress up as a skeleton, but might change her mind.

“Maybe a ghost, or shark, or dinosaur,” Lucy said.

Butterbrodt’s daughter Marlo, 8, is looking forward to other perks of the evening.

“Staying home, and eating as much food as I want,” she said.


Contrary to the St. Paul neighborhood, Anoka — known as the Halloween capital of the world — is going full throttle with their Halloween celebrations, but with some guidelines in place.

“We never quit, right?” said Liz McFarland, president of Anoka Halloween. “Canceling was not in our discussion over the whole festival. But we did know we were definitely going to have to rearrange, rework, cancel some things.”

McFarland said they had a lot to think about: keeping gatherings under 250 people, social distancing, masks, reducing surface contact, and adhering to CDC and Minnesota Department of Health guidelines.

Their annual Grande Day Parade, which usually brings Anoka’s population from 17,000 to 60,000 — according to 100th anniversary chairman John Jost — is heavily changed. Spectators will drive from location to location in Anoka in order to view the parade from their car, rather than the other way around.

Anoka’s preschool Halloween costume contest was moved outdoors while their medallion hunt was expanded from searching through a park to searching the whole city, McFarland said. With movie theaters closed, they hosted an outdoor movie night featuring “Gremlins.”

Within their 100 years of festivities, Anoka has only canceled Halloween celebrations twice: in 1942 and 1943 during World War II, according to Jost.

“During World War II of those two years, the community believed it was just inappropriate to have a celebration due to the seriousness of the war and the war effort,” Jost said.

Jost is part of a research committee tasked with putting together a 100th anniversary book going through the history of Anoka Halloween. One of the things they found that Anoka did in its first year is something they’re bringing back.

“The first Anoka Halloween was rang in with the whistles on Lincoln Mill going off and the church bells around town ringing,” Jost said. “At 7:30 on Halloween, we’ll actually be having church bells in town ringing, the police department and fire department will have their sirens going, and then … we’ve asked the public to step out and honk their horns.”

With the heavy limitations Anoka Halloween and the block in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul have dealt with, both the residents and festival organizers said they’d like to have a normal Halloween in the near future.

“We’re hoping next year to be back with a vengeance,” Marrinan said.


More information about Anoka Halloween can be found at anokahalloween.com.

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