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Friday, January 27, 2023

Local fall festivities maintain traditions despite COVID-19

When October rolls around and the weather starts to get nippy, David Armstrong pulls out his blue tractor.

He parks it under a white tent, attaches a rusty platform filled with itchy beds of hay and parades a metal sign that reads “Tractor Rides.” For the next month, Armstrong is the tractor driver of Alachua’s Pumpkin Patch, which is sponsored by the First United Methodist Church of Alachua. The pumpkin patch is located at 15710 NW US Hwy 441.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, annual fall festivities, like Alachua’s Pumpkin Patch, have changed their usual operations this season. Venues are encouraging visitors to wear face masks and respect social distancing.

Since Armstrong started volunteering at the pumpkin patch five years ago, he said he has made it his personal duty to inspire the younger generation by teaching them about history.

“This is just a little tiny smidge of what they get to see and what people did in the past: hayrides, things like making hay, riding a tractor or seeing a tractor,” Armstrong said.

With standard COVID-19 measures in place, pumpkin patches are moderate risk activities, according to Halloween guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Outdoor cornfield mazes, like Newberry Cornfield Maze, fall under the same category.

Since 2004, the Newberry Cornfield Maze, located at 20015 W. Newberry Road, has provided local residents with frightening festivities: a hayride, cornfield maze and haunted house. This year, masks won’t only be to scare guests but for all visitors who dare to step into the spooky labyrinth.

Cale McCall, a 22-year-old UF public relations senior and Crosscity resident, has visited the maze for the past eight years.

“It's a good fright,” McCall said. “With the vast majority of the activities taking place in an outdoor, open-air environment, I felt that the corn maze provided a safe space for me to enjoy the fall activities.”


Peanut Patch and Corn Maze, located at 8656 SW 75th St., reduced its hours of operation from Friday, Saturday and Sunday to Fridays and Saturdays to avoid large crowding, co-owner Crystal Hassell said.

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To avoid crowding, the farm also eliminated most of the daytime family activities, including the kids’ play area and bounce house, she said. This year, the 4-year-old haunted house will be the farm’s main attraction. Employees can get within 6 feet of visitors but must wear a mask under their costumes.

The 1,600-square-foot house is a maze of 16 rooms with different themes and actors, Hassell said. Only six visitors are allowed inside the haunted house at a time. Some themes have incorporated plexiglass to protect props and encourage social distancing.

Every October, Sarah Vial used to cram into a minivan with her family for a 15 minute drive from Citra to the Coon Hollo, located at 22480 N. U.S. Highway 441 in Micanopy. The 21-year-old UF psychology senior recalls wading in a giant crib of corn, scaling a hay fort and competing in potato-sack races with her sisters. 

A year ago, Vial worried about what sweater she would wear to Coon Hollo. Now, her thoughts revolve around the virus.

“Fall is such a calming time for me, and I know a lot of people thought COVID would be gone by now,” she said. “But I am ready to grab my mask, pick out a pumpkin and get lost in a corn maze.”

Nearly 2,000 people used to visit Coon Hollo every Saturday since it opened in 2009, owner Amy Perryman said. She decided to limit capacity to 50% when the festival opened Oct. 9, despite Gov. Ron DeSantis’ lift on restrictions on businesses. 

While masks are optional, the 2,000-pound corn crib, hay fort and pig races that Vial enjoyed as a child will be eliminated this year, Perryman said.

The farm will monitor capacity through an online reservation system, which uses a barcode scanned on entry, she said. Tickets are $10 are available only online and will reduce ticket-booth interactions and lines. 

While some venues are continuing their annual in-person attractions, the Lubee Bat Conservancy moved some of its activities online.

The conservancy’s 16th annual Florida Bat Festival starts Oct. 18 and ends Oct. 24, said director Brian Pope. The weeklong event usually draws up to 5,000 people each year.

The festival will host “Conservation from the Couch,” a series of online events where viewers can learn more about the animals at the conservancy. Viewers will also have the opportunity to live chat with the staffers about the animals and ask any questions they may have. Each day, the livestreams will cover topics, such as bat health, superstitions and species.

There will also be a quarantine-themed half marathon at the Blackadder Brewing Company, located at 618 NW 60th St Suite A, on Oct. 24, Pope said. Groups of up to six people will be allowed to start the half marathon every 10 minutes.  

All proceeds collected from the $35 registration fee will go to the Lubee Bat Conservancy, Pope added. 

“The main draw is our bats that we have here at Lubee,” Pope said.

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