Local Halloween attractions, seasonal businesses adapt amid pandemic

Johnson first said his business wouldn’t be open this year. He then said “we’ve got to do it.” PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

HAZEL GREEN, Wis. — Every year, Trent Johnson welcomes the shorter days and cold nights when the leaves turn shades of gold and orange and fall from trees.

He treats the gradual, seasonal change as a signal to begin planning his annual haunted house. This year as the temperatures started to drop, Johnson worried his normal October festivities would not be possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic and announced his offering would not open.

“It’s tough,” said Johnson, owner of Dark Chambers Haunted Attraction. “I even posted out to everyone that we weren’t opening. There were people that were understanding. And then we let that sink in, and we were like ‘We’ve got to do it.’ This is like Christmas for a lot of the crew.”

So, Dark Chambers will offer its annual scares. Many seasonal businesses like Johnson’s have implemented new policies or social-distancing practices to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 while offering traditional October festivities.

Johnson said he knew the decision to open Dark Chambers would be more of a challenge this year than the past nine but decided to get to work and give others something to look forward to this Halloween.

This is the second year it has been held at 1341 Frontage Road in Hazel Green. Most of the feature is outside, which makes social distancing easier, Johnson said. The crew also is disinfecting areas that guests might touch as well as sanitizing masks they wear for costumes.

“You space everyone out intentionally anyway,” he said. “You don’t want to have everyone in one room.”

Customers will be encouraged to go through in groups of four or less, and the waiting line will be expanded to ensure there is room for social distancing.

“Probably the biggest difference is we will need to increase our queue line area because we are trying to create that space,” Johnson said. “This year, it will be down two blocks because everyone is spacing out.”

Johnson worried that if Dark Chambers did not open this year, it might not reopen at all.

“Hopefully, things will be a little bit simpler next year,” he said. “I am not trying to make any money. I am just trying to keep this thing afloat.”

This year, business has been normal at Schuster’s Pumpkin Patch & Corn Maze in rural Dubuque, said co-owner Pam Schuster. Most of its beloved activities remain, though COVID-19 adjustments led to the elimination this year of the children’s bounce house and “corn box,” in which kids can play in shelled corn.

“I have up signs for social distancing,” Schuster said. “The wagon ride is only like a five-minute ride over to the pumpkin patch. We’re trying to go more often, so we don’t make them wait long on the wagon.”

Schuster said they opened for the season the last weekend in September and had about 500 people in one day.

“People are just ready to be out and about,” she said.

Bryce Intorf, president of Delhi (Iowa) Betterment Committee, said this year’s Delhi Trail of Terror will be from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, at Silver Lake Park.

Intorf said the event is held outside, but staff also will ensure customers seeking a scare are able to spread out as they go through the course.

“We feel like there is going to be a lot of people because a lot of other things are canceling,” he said.

At Dubuque County Fairgrounds’ annual trunk-or-treat event, kids on the prowl for candy will not have the ability to stop and chat with those handing out candy as they have in previous years, said fair General Manager Kevin Kotz.

“They’ll just have to enter and leave immediately,” he said.

The event is slated for 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22. Kotz said staff has been in contact with the Dubuque County Public Health Department to ensure their plans will allow for social distancing and safety of both the trick-or-treaters and those handing out the candy.

“We will mandate that everyone wears masks so everyone stays safe,” he said. “We will use more area than we have in the past. We tell them they all need to have wrapped candy, and they need to drop it directly in the bags. We will supply masks and gloves.”

Caitlin Conary, of Vesperman Farms in Lancaster, Wis., said that, during the first weekend on which the corn maze and pumpkin patch were open, people came in droves.

“We have seen a lot of people,” she said. “Our first real weekend was very, very busy from the beginning. Everyone is itching to do something especially with schools being on and off.”