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Halloween planners in Howard County work to organize spooky but safe fun amid coronavirus pandemic

Falling on a Saturday with a full moon expected overhead, Halloween this year was setting up to be special. Now with concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and various restrictions in place, Halloween festivities in Howard County will really be like no other, as event organizers are working hard to create safe and healthy spooky fun during these strange times.

For the past five or six years, Robinson Nature Center in Columbia has hosted Halloween Tricks, Treats and Trees, a popular event that has become a family tradition for many, according to organizers.

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“A few years ago, a woman called us on the way to the hospital in labor to enroll her children in the program,” said Meagan Downey, program manager at Robinson Nature Center. “Families look forward to it.”

The staff worked hard this year to create a modified version of the festive event that typically attracts more than 700 people during the two days. Now, only 80 people are allowed and registration is required.

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All activities will be outside, and groups of 20 will be led along the center’s trail to themed stations, where they will learn about nocturnal animals, mystical creatures, bugs and more. An obstacle course and puppet show round out the event, with each participant receiving a treat bag at the end.

“We’ve never done it this way before,” said Downey, noting that there will not be a burlap maze or hay bale climb this year. “It is more of a guided adventure this Halloween.”

To reach a larger audience and to provide something for those not comfortable attending public events, the staff has created Take Home Halloween Tricks, Treats and Trees kits that feature all the materials necessary to create numerous activities from a scavenger hunt to making a witches’ brew.

“We’re offering a lot of this kind of stuff this year,” Downey said. “Something in-person and something for home — options to get out in nature and have fun.”

Sharp’s at Waterford Farm in Brookeville provides plenty of space on its 550-acre farm for people to come pick out a pumpkin and enjoy a hayride, according to Cheryl Nodar, program director and tour manager at Sharp’s.

“People are so happy,” Nodar said. “It is an opportunity for people to be outside and have some fun before winter comes.”

Nodar does miss the school field trips. Last year, 15,000 school children visited the farm. With most school systems being held online, this year Sharp’s is hosting open house farm tours on Wednesdays and Fridays. With a limit of 25 participants, the tour features a hayride to the pumpkin patch to pick a pumpkin and to a corn field to pick an ear of corn for popping. Each participant is also given an ornamental gourd and feed to feed the farm animals.

“We have families come, home-school groups,” Nodar said. “People are welcome to stay longer if they want or bring a picnic. All our tables are spread out.”

Special weekend events are also scheduled. On Saturday, the Gentle Giants, a draft-horse rescue group, will visit the farm with some horses and on Oct. 24 and 25, the farm is hosting its annual dog days, with visitors encouraged to bring their dogs in costume.

All visitors to the farm are required to wear masks and maintain social distancing. People also have the option to walk to the pumpkin patch if they are not comfortable taking a hayride.

“People are very aware of everything,” Nodar said. ""They don’t expect all the bells and whistles. They are so patient."

Elkridge Furnace Inn is hosting its first It’s Just a Bunch of Hocus Pocus Cocktail Party on Oct. 30.

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“We wanted to try something new,” said Donna Wecker, co-owner of Elkridge Furnace Inn. “It sounded like a way to throw a good party and still feel pretty safe.”

The event, which will feature a magic show, a Halloween trivia contest, an open bar and hors d’oeuvres, will take place in a covered tent that backs to the Patapsco River on one side and to the restaurant’s kitchen gardens on the other.

“Our tent can seat 215 people, but we average 60 guests for social distancing,” Wecker said. “We’re marketing this that people are purchasing a table, whether for two, four or more so you know who you are sitting with.”

Guests will be required to wear masks unless they are seated at their table. All food and drinks will be brought to them.

“People are so happy to have something to finally do,” said Wecker, noting that the restaurant started in July offering its monthly themed teas in the tent.

“There is a lot stress and depression is up,” Wecker said. “To do something good and have people skipping out the door is awesome.”

Historic Savage Mill is also hosting two Halloween events this season — one new and one old.

On Oct. 17, there will be a Friday night double feature beginning at 6:30 p.m. with a showing of “Hocus Pocus” followed by “Beetlejuice” at 8:30 p.m.

“Our summer movie series was such a success, we decided to offer a fall season,” said Sarah Asseng, marketing director at the mill, adding that the event is already sold out. “We may even offer a Christmas series.”

The mill’s popular ghost tours are offered every Friday and Saturday night through Oct. 31. Participants must wear a mask and practice social distancing during the two-hour tour that now includes the mill’s attic.

“It was always in the plan to start it this year,” Asseng said of opening the attic to tours. “It is a huge, open space. We did not see any problems with it. It seems to be a huge hit.”

Asseng said she had a possible ghostly encounter outside of the former mill manager’s office, now a conference room.

“I had stayed late to print some promotions and walked into a cold spot,” Asseng said. “I smelled a real heavy perfume scent and thought it was an air freshener.”

She later learned about the ghost of a former mill manager’s daughter who died in her early 20s.

“It was pretty freaky,” Asseng said.

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