COVID-19 haunts seasonal business in McAllen

Flying Monkey mask at JJ’s Party House on Wednesday in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

McALLEN — JJ’s Party House felt eerie Wednesday, and not eerie in the way owner Lala Karam likes it to feel three days before Halloween.

The party supply and costume emporium felt unseasonably quiet Wednesday, almost like Halloween had already passed or was still a month or two off.

During a normal year, Karam said, the store would be bustling with families, the same way it’s been every Halloween for the last 38 years.

“You couldn’t move in here,” she said. “We’d have to use all that parking lot and all the sides, it was so much fun.”

JJ’s does about 30-40% of its annual business during Halloween, and like other seasonal McAllen businesses structured around the holiday, JJ’s has had to redefine itself to weather the pandemic.

Karam says in-store sales have dropped by as much as 50% since the pandemic began. For most of the last seven months, JJ’s was closed completely to foot traffic and most of its employees were furloughed.

“It killed our business. It killed our business,” Karam said. “I don’t know how we’re still here.”

The party purveyor opened back up about a month ago only to endure another kick in the gut when Hidalgo County announced that trick-or-treating was prohibited for 2020.

“The death rate, hospitalizations and rate of infection continue, local medical experts say we are still not out of the woods with this disease,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez wrote in a release announcing the ban.

The judge’s reasoning was underscored by other news from the county that day: 17 more people in Hidalgo County had died of COVID-19. People have continued to die since then, and the county is on track to break 2,000 deaths related to the coronavirus sometime next month.

Karam says she’s been taking the pandemic seriously — her son is a doctor who seldom fails to remind her about it, and she’s had family and friends suffer from the virus. Nonetheless, she was disappointed when she heard the news, angry that her holiday had been canceled even as local malls bustled with shoppers and local municipalities announced their first in-person events in months.

“It hurts us. It hurts us as small businesses. You shut down Halloween, and it’s like, give me a break,” she said. “Kids are still going to trick or treat. Kids still want to get together. I mean, what are you gonna do, go arrest them?”

Lala Karam, owner of JJ’s Party House, talks about how COVID has impacted her business on Wednesday in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

A handful of people browsed the aisles in JJ’s Party House on Wednesday, but Karam said it was unprecedentedly dead for the week of Halloween. There were less employees too, only about a third of the number that would usually be stocking shelves and helping customers find costumes.

“Do you have any karate stuff or a gi?” a customer asks Karam.

She shakes her head and says no.

There aren’t as many costumes on the walls this year either. A sad sign for Karam, who likes watching her customers shop and pick out masks, but ultimately a symptom of a silver lining for her business.

Although in-store sales are down 40-50%, online sales are up just about as much. Many of the costumes never make it on the shelves, Karam says, they simply get shipped back out to destinations across the nation.

JJ’s even had to ask the post office to send a bigger truck to pick up all of its packages.

“I guess it’s just the man upstairs watching over me,” Karam said.

Karam says when Halloween is over, JJ’s will likely reduce its hours and close on Sundays. She hopes by taking advantage of that online demand she can help protect her staff and customers.

“I am not gonna run that risk of somebody getting sick. I can’t,” she said. “It would weigh down on me like you can’t imagine.”

The entrance to JJ’s Party House on Wednesday in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Shifting to an online model isn’t an option for many of the Rio Grande Valley’s Halloween businesses — especially for haunted houses.

Toluca Ranch in Weslaco, Donna’s Corn Maze and Nightmare on Broadway have all been staple Valley haunted attractions for years. None of them are open this year.

Nightmare on Broadway owner Aleck Rios said he made the decision not to open this year based on safety and liability concerns, along with the difficulty of operating it in compliance with local health regulations.

“It’s understandable. We’re trying to keep everybody safe, but it’s a hard pill to swallow,” he said.

Being closed during Halloween is an enormous economic blow for an industry with already slim margins, Rios says.

Usually, Nightmare on Broadway would begin getting ready for the season in June. In a normal year, the operation shuffles between 8,000 and 10,000 guests through the doors of the 23-room haunted house in a two-and-a-half-week span, charging between $20 and $30 for tickets.

Rios says he’s fortunate. He owns his building, which helps him save on overhead, but he’s still making payments on equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars that won’t be earning any money this year.

“This year it’s a haunted storage place more than an entertainment venue,” he said.

The real tough part about being closed this year, Rios said, was breaking the news to the staff.

“It’s a group of individuals who pour their heart out to this season of Halloween,” he said. “It’s not just about the screams and scares. They’re a very united and tight group, and very artistic and talented.”

Like Karam, Rios hasn’t enjoyed watching his business suffer while others appear to be operating as normal.

“A few blocks west of us you have 17th Street and they’re fully loaded, you have people all over the place,” he said.

Some Halloween ventures in McAllen have managed to operate almost as normal as well, especially pumpkin patches.

The stairway to the 2nd floor at JJ’s Party House on Wednesday in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Jessica Sargent Flores, director of Christian Education at St. Mark Methodist, says their pumpkin patch has been a little slower than normal this year but not by much.

Pumpkin patches are ideal for the pandemic, she said. They’re well-ventilated and it’s easy to spread people out. St. Mark’s added hand sanitizer, limits the amount of people in the patch and requires masks at this year’s patch.

“Otherwise it has felt somewhat normalish,” Sargent Flores said. “Not quite normal, but not too far removed from it. Closer than we had been feeling.”

Sargent Flores says the patch usually starts out with 3,000-5,000 pumpkins. There’s about 1,000 left, and Sargent Flores expects the patch to earn its usual $7,000 to $12,000 that will support children’s and youth programs at the church.

According to Sargent Flores, no cases have been tied to the patch and it’s looking like a success for the church and for the community.

“We have people that have been coming to our patch for 23 years, and we’re so happy that we were able to maintain it even in the middle of a pandemic, and we’re so happy for the support from the community,” she said. “The community support has been amazing.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said JJ’s Party House has been in business 28 years. The establish has been in business 38 years.

Monitor staff writer Colleen DeGuzman contributed to this story.