NEW YORK – Nestled on the outskirts of New York City, Sleepy Hollow, the town immortalized in Washington Irving’s famous “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” has for years been a Halloween destination. As soon as the leaves start to turn in early October each year, tens of thousands of tourists travel to the Hudson River Town to visit – but in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic brought tourism to a standstill.
Mayor Ken Wray says he realized as early as the cancellation of 4th of July fireworks that the town might have to call off the October events that have brought it worldwide fame. Wray said that they waited as long as they could to make the final decision but, “as the summer went on, we knew, this isn’t gonna happen.”
Indeed, on August 14, Wray announced that the storied October festivities – including a live performance of Irving’s Legend at the Old Dutch Cemetery, the Forest O’Fears Haunted Hayride, the Sleepy Hollow International Film Festival and the Sleepy Hollow Street Fair – would not go on this year.
According to Wray, he determined if they held events, people would most likely come – and potentially bring Covid-19 with them. It was not, he said, a responsible thing to do. And while the locals weren’t surprised, they were worried.
Brian Doyle, owner of JP Doyle’s Bar & Restaurant, said the community had been prepared since March 15, when the town went under lockdown.
“It’s just like one more kick,” Doyle said.
Julia McCue, owner of HorseFeathers, said that she relies on the Halloween season to get her restaurant through the winter and was grateful for even the tiny number of tourists that still came. Alas, even the gratitude was tainted: she needed visitors, but those visitors could bring the disease.
She remembers thinking: “If you don’t figure this out, you could lose everything, your whole family could lose everything.”
HorseFeathers has been part of the town for 40 years and Dina McCue, Julia’s mother, said that if it weren’t for the few activities the town still sponsored, including the Pumpkin Blaze and the cemetery tours, the restaurant would have gone “belly up.”
While the unemployment rate for Westchester County was 7 percent in October, Wray was unable to provide unemployment statistics or details on the overall economic impact the pandemic has had on Sleepy Hollow, but he said he knew the town would have to act as he watched local stores close and residents lose their jobs.
And indeed, as the number of cases rise in Westchester County – increasing from 234 cases on Nov. 6 to 516 cases on Dec. 6 – and as the long winter begins – the town is supplying much-needed assistance to restaurants.
After he received a request from one owner, Wray announced he could donate park picnic tables to all Sleepy Hollow restaurants so that they could adhere to CDC guidelines, and even organized a team to deliver them to those who took him up on the offer.
And instead of wallowing in the admittedly terrible situation, locals say Sleepy Hollow has pulled together. People still decorated their homes for Halloween, and locals spent time and money at businesses near their homes.
Across the street from the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, AJ Antony and his father Paul own a Halloween booth they set up just outside the Food Mart each year. And while AJ said they usually work the booth amid “screams and laughter from across the street,” without tourists to cater to, local businesses are donating to the homeless, other struggling businesses, police, firefighters, and hospitals in the area.
Despite her own anxiety over the future of her business, Julia McCue asked people via her restaurant website to reach out on behalf of someone in need. The donations allowed her to supply food that her father would then deliver to hospitals, fire departments and to the homes of town locals.
McCue called the initiative The Moveable Feast, and when demand got too high for her to fill on her own, she paired with a Sleepy Hollow organizer to ensure that those who needed it would receive food to get them through the coming months.
The group set up a food drive in a nearby parking lot and enlisted other restaurants like JP Doyle’s to cook hundreds of meals for people to pick up and volunteers to deliver to Philips Hospital and the Westchester Medical Center.
“For the first few months, the car line was so long,” said McCue. “It was so heartbreaking.”
McCue said that The Moveable Feast provided her with a much-needed purpose in this dark time.
Mayor Wray indicated that there was so little the town could do, every little bit helped. Although the town does not have the same resources that larger cities do, there were some things they could do to help their neighbors and “those who can help out, should help out,” he said.
His sentiment was echoed by many in Sleepy Hollow.
“When push came to shove, everyone really did band together and the amount of support for everybody in the community was a really nice feeling,” said Julia McCue.