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Virtual dog costume contests are the best part of Halloween during a pandemic

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Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — Back in 2018, the cancellation of one of the most beloved Halloween events in New York City threatened to ruin the holiday, or at least put a serious damper on it, for thousands of dog lovers across the five boroughs. The organizers of the Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade announced via Facebook, to the dismay of their followers, that they were unable to afford the insurance and liability policy required that year by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Ultimately, the 28th annual edition of the event was saved by a neighborhood organization called Good Old Lower East Side and moved to another location, but not before giving everyone quite a scare.

This year, the pandemic called the long-running event's future into question once again. But to the relief of both the participants and the spectators for whom the costume contest is the highlight of their October calendar, the Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade is going strong in 2020, albeit in a slightly different way than usual. Rather than holding the event in-person, the organizers are taking it virtual.

"We felt that going virtual was the only choice, seeing as the New York City Parks Department would never grant us a permit to do an in-person event with the magnitude that this parade has historically been," said Jennifer-Jo Moyer, co-organizer of the parade.

Across the East River, the Great PUPkin Dog Costume Contest, held each year by nonprofit organization Fort Green PUPS, has taken a similar approach.

"You can’t not do the event. It’s been done for 22 years. We even had to move it one year because there was a freak snowstorm, and the park had to be shut down, so the whole event got moved the day before. But we did it anyway," said Emily Lawson, the organizer of this year's contest. "It’s sort of like the mail. Through rain or sleet or shine or whatever else, this PUPkin is going to happen."

The PUPkin started as a gathering of a few friends who wanted to dress their dogs up in silly costumes, but as their creativity attracted the attention of others in Fort Green Park, the event grew dramatically in size and added a competition component to the festivities. In recent years, an estimated two to three thousand people have showed up to see a bunch of adorable dogs in costume and find out which of the 120 contestants would take home the grand prize.

Such a large gathering would, of course, be irresponsible in the midst of COVID-19, but at the same time, Lawson recognized that the pandemic, as well as the other events happening in the country, created even more necessity for the event to take place. "It creates such a level of joy for the community and for the contestants to really have an opportunity to do something that has nothing to do with the current economic climate or the political climate but is just about the silliness of creativity and letting your mind go crazy and thinking of whatever might be in your head. We wanted to be able to provide that to the community," she said.

For both of the continually-expanding events, one of the biggest benefits of going virtual was the opportunity to expand the scope of the event without worrying about the physical limitations of a physical location.

"I think we might draw a larger spectatorship from around the country and around the world. Also, people who would ordinarily not be able to travel to New York to participate have been able to participate through email submissions," said Moyer. She anticipates that future iterations of the Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade will continue to incorporate a virtual event to reduce in-person attendance while still allowing thousands to watch and subsequently lessen some of the tension in conversations with the Parks Department.

The PUPkin had already been thinking virtual for last year's event; they added a Facebook Live element with the goal of expanding their audience in a way that still allowed people to actually see the contestants, versus trying to observe them on stage from a great distance away and through a thick crowd of other bodies. But while viewers could tune in from locations outside of Brooklyn, both participation as a contestant and participation as an audience member were restricted to those physically in attendance. Contestants had to actually parade their dogs in front of a panel of judges, and from the judges' top picks, audience cheering determined the overall winner.

Fitting for an election year, the virtual PUPkin will instead use a completely democratic process to crown the champion. Contestants registered their costumes in mid-October, and on Oct. 23, all of the entries were posted in an online photo gallery. Anyone with an internet connection is able to vote for their favorite. It's free to cast a vote, but you'll only get one, so choose wisely. The top 10 winners will then participate in a livestream event on Oct. 29 that includes live voting for the winner.

"If you’re somewhere other than New York but want to look at cute dog costumes, we’d love for you to vote. We’d love for you to participate and watch the livestream," said Lawson.

The Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade has been accepting photo and video submissions via email, and although the official deadline was Oct. 21, a recent Facebook post encouraged would-be participants to "keep the online submissions coming." The photo and video entries will be woven into a livestream event on Oct. 24. The event will also have a Zoom component that will allow participants to Zoom in and show off their dogs' costumes during the livestream.

However, the process of turning the historically in-person events entirely virtual has not been without its challenges. And with the increased reliance on technology, there is greater potential for glitches and other technical difficulties during the main event.

"Since this is so new for so many of us, nobody really knows how it’s going to happen in reality, so I hesitate to really say anything concretely until it’s over. It’s uncharted territory for everyone," said Moyer. Luckily for Moyer, her creative partner runs a photo studio and understood, to some extent, how to transform all of the elements that made the in-person event so beloved into a livestream version during the pandemic.

Even after utilizing Facebook Live last year, the organizers of the Great PUPkin Dog Costume Contest still needed some outside help in setting up this year's iteration. Lawson had a connection with the circus community in New York City after adding circus elements to last year's event, and she relied on assistance from a group called the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus to figure out the best way to run a virtual contest. Bindlestiff Family Cirkus had been hosting online variety shows throughout the pandemic, and their months of experience was invaluable to Lawson.

"If I hadn’t had that connection, it would have been extraordinarily difficult, but because of that connection, I feel really confident that we are going to have an event that is well-structured and is going to be very fun and widely available and well-presented," said Lawson.

In addition to figuring out the technology on the side of the PUPkin, Lawson, with the help of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, had to figure out how to make the event as accessible as possible to the participants. "Since all of these people are going to be competing from home, how do we make it as simple and clear as possible for them to understand how to do their presentations and feel comfortable doing it? It's not just our tech," she said.

If you want to vote for the Great PUPkin Dog Costume Contest's top 10 finalists, you can head over to the online photo gallery now through 6 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 26. Then, on Thursday, Oct. 29, you can tune into the livestream on Facebook or YouTube at 7 p.m. to watch the finalists strut their stuff and to vote for the winner. The main event is free to watch, but if you feel inspired to support the organization in charge of the contest, Fort Greene PUPS is accepting donations.

The Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade will take place from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24 and more information for how to view the event will be posted on the Tompkins Square Dog Run website, as well as on their Facebook page.