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Members of the Owatonna football team line up during practice on Tuesday evening in preparation for a Week 4 matchup against Monticello. The game, which was added after Owatonna’s originally-scheduled opponent, New Prague, backed out due to COVID-19 concerns, will be played on Friday at 4 p.m. at Monticello High School and is the part of a doubleheader that will feature Moorhead and Rogers in the nightcap. (Jon Weisbrod/SouthernMinn.com)

A Halloween that's scarier than others
  • Updated

Halloween is already a scary time of year, but the COVID-19 pandemic has some people concerned about the tradition of trick-or-treating.

While some Steele County residents will continue the much-loved tradition of trick-or-treating this year, others are finding alternative ways to celebrate the holiday during the pandemic.

Some residents told the People’s Press that they’ll be handing out prebagged candy and sanitizing between handoffs while others are setting up a haunted house for their kids, telling scary stories and making Halloween-themed snacks.

Holly Caudillo said her 10-year-old daughter is going to do a scavenger hunt instead of trick-or-treating. Angela Cerbana said her family is only visiting the homes of immediate family for trick or treating.

“We plan on digging out the Easter eggs and doing a Halloween egg hunt instead,” Cerbana said.

The Steele County Public Health Department hasn’t taken a stance on trick-or-treating this year and neither has the city of Owatonna.

“It’s best to try to stay outdoors if you can, we can spread out a little more, you have the fresh air,” county Public Health Director Amy Caron said. “I would still say wear those masks, keep those six feet of social distancing and not go out anywhere if you do have any of those COVID-19 symptoms.”

The city has never historically regulated Halloween, but City Administrator Kris Busse said city officials are asking residents to use good judgment and follow Gov. Tim Walz’s orders.

Caron said she doesn’t recommend going door to door or getting together for parties because COVID-19 can still spread in small social gatherings.

“I feel like a lot of us are in a position where you have what we call ‘COVID fatigue’ and are maybe relaxing on some of those precautions that we were taking,” Caron said. “Now is not the time to do that … now is the time to be diligent, especially when we go into these winter months and we start spending more time indoors.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention shared some trick-or-treating alternatives including decorating your home for Halloween and carving pumpkins with family or neighbors and friends while outside. Another safe option would be to take a walk around the neighborhood to admire the decked-out houses from a safe distance.

“Traditional Halloween activities are fun, but some can increase the risk of getting or spreading COVID-19 or influenza. Plan alternate ways to participate in Halloween,” the CDC wrote on the Trick or Treating and Other Halloween Activities webpage.

The CDC lists the following activities as low-risk alternatives for trick-or-treating:

Hiding candy in and around your home and throwing a Halloween treat hunt/Halloween themed scavenger hunt

Hosting a virtual costume contest

Having a scary movie night with your household.

Moderate-risk activities recommended by the CDC include:

Handing out individually wrapped bags of candy and setting them outside to grab and go

Holding an outdoor costume parade or contest while maintaining six feet social distance

Having a socially distanced outdoor movie night with friends or neighbors

Visiting a pumpkin patch or orchard while making sure to wash your hands after handling frequently touched surfaces

The CDC says the following are higher-risk activities:

Participating in traditional trick-or-treating in which candy is handed out by going door-to door

Participating in a trunk-or-treat

Attending crowded costume parties indoors

Visiting indoor haunted houses where people will likely be screaming

For those really wanting to participate in trick-or-treating, the CDC has shared steps to make the activity safer. Most tips are standard COVID-19 precautions such as wearing a mask, washing your hands before handing out treats and social distancing.

A cloth mask can become a fun customized accessory in your child’s costume, however it should be noted that a costume mask is not a substitution for a cloth mask. A costume mask should not be worn over a cloth mask, as it could make it difficult to breathe, according the CDC.

Besides a bucket, trick-or-treaters should also bring some hand sanitizer to be used after touching objects or other people. After returning home individuals should wash hands with soap and water before eating any candy.

Lighted Holiday Parade latest in COVID-19 event fatalities

With the homestretch of 2020 in sight, the Lighted Holiday Parade – an annual Owatonna tradition that takes place the Thursday after Thanksgiving – is the latest event to be canceled.

In a recent Tuesday Talk, the weekly newsletter sent out by the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, it was briefly stated that the parade, which typically brings in 70-plus floats and hundreds of people to the downtown area, would be postponed until 2021. The newsletter cited social distancing requirements for COVID-19 as the catalyst for the decision.

“Up until just a few weeks ago we were planning to move forward,” said Shirley Schultz, MainStreet director for the Chamber.

“Then the discussion with the crowd size and how keeping people socially six-feet apart was next to impossible came into play, and it really came down to a safety issue that the Chamber really thought we should reconsider.”

In 2019, thousands of people filled the streets of downtown Owatonna to watch one of the biggest parades in recent years with 73 floats decked out in holiday lights and cheer. Because of the continually growing participation in the parade, Schultz said the Chamber was originally planning on giving out additional trophies this year to participants following the traditional lighting of Central Park and performance by the Owatonna High School Carolers.

“It is such a heartbreak for everybody not to do that this year – I know the community would love to have that celebration considering winter is coming and all we’ve had to deal with during COVID-19,” Schultz said. “But we’ve made it this far, and we will have just a fabulous parade next year and the people will really be ready.”

Though there won’t be a parade, she said Central Park will still be lit up for the holidays with a tentative schedule of flipping the switch on the Thursday following Thanksgiving – just as it has been done for years following the parade. Schultz said she is also in the process of discussing a potential window-display competition with downtown businesses and property owners and that more information will be announced shortly.

Among those disappointed in the community is Mayor Tom Kuntz, who said the parade always served as a perfect kickoff to the holiday season in Owatonna. Though he acknowledges the disappointment the community is feeling over the loss of their last major public event, he reminds Owatonna residents that while the parade is canceled – shopping locally is not.

“The parade really helped our downtown businesses as shopping local was one of the themes, so please make sure you use the Owatonna stores as your first stop before you go elsewhere,” Kuntz said. “Especially during this time when all the stores and restaurants are struggling due to the virus. I think shopping locally is even more important today than it was a year ago.”

Over recent years, the parade has also served as a public awareness event to solicit donations for the holiday lights in Central Park. In 2019, the Owatonna Business Partnership used funds collected to purchase 100 new sets of lights for the park. In addition, a separate donation had been used to purchase two snowflake lights that were added to the iconic Central Park fountain.

Rice County has had two state testing sites in recent weeks, one in Northfield and another in Faribault. (Suzanne Rook/southernminn.com)

DWI cases since June outpacing first half of 2020

The number of DWI cases filed in Steele County since June has outpaced the first half of the year, with two months still left in 2020.

There were 65 DWI cases filed from January to May, according to court records. There have been 87 DWI cases since the beginning of June, 20 of which have occurred in October through Wednesday. June has had the most DWI cases so far at 23.

“With all the publicity that goes out, it is just very common knowledge what the legal limit is and the different options for public transportation,” Steele County Attorney Dan McIntosh said. “It is confounding to me that people continue to drink and drive – and it’s in all walks of life, all professions, all socioeconomic levels. I do not understand why people continue to put themselves in that dangerous situation.”

In 2019, the Steele County Court saw 25 DWI cases during the last two months of the year. In October of last year, the total amount of DWI cases was 16, four less than the current total with three days left in the month including Halloween.

Statewide, there have have been 19,267 arrests for drunken driving in 2020, according to the Office of Traffic Safety at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Of those arrests, 223 of them occurred during the most recent weekend.

However, McIntosh said that while it’s easy to see a trend in DWI arrests and charges this year, the overall amount may appear higher when compared to total arrests because there have been fewer arrests due to COVID-19. In order to reduce the risk of exposure in the Steele County Detention Center, McIntosh explained that certain infractions that do not pose a threat to public safety but could warrant an arrest are now being handled with a citation or a ticket. Examples include driving after cancelation and lower level property offenses.

Though the perception of an alarming amount of DWI arrests may be slightly skewed due to the new COVID-19 standards, McIntosh said the ongoing pandemic is precisely all the more reason why the continual DWI offenses are frustrating.

“Individuals and society in general just don’t need that extra stress and grief right now,” McIntosh said.

Last month, McIntosh first spoke out on what appeared to be a rising trend in DWI arrests and charges following the initial hit and run incident with an Owatonna man who is now facing a felony-level charge related to the Sept. 4 incident.

Donald Gary Johnson, 47, is facing a felony-level DWI charge as well as a gross misdemeanor charge for driving after cancelation. Charges were first filed in August, but were re-filed on Monday with Johnson’s first court appearance scheduled for Dec. 3.

According to court documents, an officer with the Owatonna Police Department was dispatched to a residence for an alleged hit and run. At the scene, a witness told the officer they heard loud “banging around” outside and saw Johnson driving away in his vehicle. The witness then said they noticed damage to their vehicle and car parts on the ground. The officer made note of car signal lamp parts, a grill and other plastic car parts on the ground near the witness’ vehicle as well as a puddle of automotive fluids on the ground and paint transfer on the vehicle that matched the descriptions of Johnson’s car, according to the report.

Officers located Johnson at an Owatonna business and recorded heavy front end damage and leaking fluids from his vehicle. According to the criminal complaint, there was a strong odor of alcohol coming from Johnson when he would remove his face mask to speak. Officers performed several field sobriety tests that Johnson could not successfully complete before administering a preliminary breath test, recording a 0.20 blood alcohol level. Johnson was then arrested without incident.

Estimated damage to the witness’ vehicle came in at $5,340.

Johnson has two previous alcohol-related driving infractions on record, one in 2010 and another in 2011. He also was charged with driving after implied consent revocation in August of this year. According to McIntosh, the fourth alcohol-related or revocation infraction someone receives in a 10-year span bumps the severity of a DWI charge to felony level.

“Once you’ve had a felony-level DWI, any subsequent DWI you receive in your lifetime is also a felony,” McIntosh said. “There is a public safety concern with any DWI, whether it is a habitual or repeat offender or first time, it is a pretty pressing public safety matter.”

In other court news, an inmate at the Steele County Detention Center has been charged with two felony-level counts of threats of violence. According to court documents, 44-year-old Nashid Asmir Abdul-Zahir allegedly threatened to stab a jail staffer and threatened to assault another staffer. During the ongoing verbal altercation, which began at 10:37 a.m. and continued to 5 p.m., Abdul-Zahir smeared feces over his cell and demanded his cell door be opened to clean it up, the report says. Abdul-Zahir is currently being held at the jail for drug-related charges.

The ACLU of Minnesota is suing the Minnesota Department of Corrections, alleging that it didn’t take sufficient precautions to protect staff and inmates from the coronavirus. Two Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault inmates died from the virus, hundreds more tested positive. (File photo/southernminn.com)