Menlo Park's well-loved holiday traditions are returning for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with several council members making efforts to reinstate more community events at a Sept. 20 council meeting.
While smaller-scale city events made a return over the summer, Menlo Park has been slow to return to pre-pandemic levels of service. Despite the city hosting the Summer Concert Series, many council members pointed to the lack of a Summer Festival — something several nearby cities have brought back — as an indication of Menlo Park's sluggish approach to recovery.
"The overall theme that I've gotten is that the city has been incredibly slow to come back when it comes to community programming and engagement," Council Member Drew Combs said.
During the peak of the pandemic, all city events were canceled due to the risk of viral transmission and the steep economic downturn. In April 2021, Menlo Park sought to turn the corner, creating a plan to slowly phase events and city services back in. Large events were planned to be the last to return, due to their risk of transmission, costs, and lack of staffing.
Cherished events are now slated to return to Menlo Park, and the City Council is taking this opportunity to explore the inclusivity of religious holiday celebrations hosted by the city.
Menlo Park is partnering with San Mateo County Parks in order to host the Halloween Hoopla at Burgess Park this year. While city staff originally planned for the event to not include the parade as it has in past years, Council member Ray Mueller led the push to reinstate it.
Mueller said his goal is to return to pre-pandemic conditions in Menlo Park, though city officials cautioned that the city remains short-staffed. Sean Reinhart, director of library and community services, said that staffing has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.
"What I'm really focused on right now is (that) I want to get back to where we were," Mueller said. "So I want the city open for business again. I want to be providing the same level of services."
The council recommended to staff that the Halloween parade be an element of the event, as well as other services such as trick or treating at local businesses downtown.
"We're talking about the things that I think a small community in your city (does)," Combs said. "It's a core value you provide to residents ... I do think to sort of lose that ... or discount the value of that is to not understand what that community event was all about."
Council member Cecilia Taylor advised staff to advertise the city's existing shuttle service to make events more accessible to the entire community.
The city is also restoring its Light of the Season tree-lighting event, lighting trees at both Fremont Park and the Willow and Newbridge intersection. The Fremont Park tree lighting will also include a larger community event to signify the start of the holiday shopping season and initiate patronage to Downtown Menlo Park stores — aimed at assisting businesses in their post-pandemic economic recovery.
City officials initially excluded Menlo Park's Breakfast with Santa event, which was reinstated at the Sept. 20 meeting after pushback from council members. Combs encouraged the city to bring back the event as part of Menlo Park's Winter holiday festivities, which was last hosted in December 2019 at the Arrillaga Family Gymnasium with several hundred attendees.
Council members acknowledged the lack of staffing as a hurdle in bringing back citywide festivities, and said they would support additional efforts to find ways to host the events.
"I'm trying to figure out what we need to do to empower you and to empower city staff because we need them back," Mueller said. "The community really needs them back."
During the COVID hiatus from large blockbuster events, the city has considered new ways to be more inclusive in its religious events. City staff suggested that children from different faiths come together at the tree lighting celebration to talk about how their family celebrates and what the holiday season means to them.
Another tradition being revisited for inclusion is the Easter Egg hunt hosted by the city. As Easter is also a religious holiday, the city wants to preserve a tradition without excluding other members of the community. The city is also partnering with San Mateo County Parks for the egg hunt.
Vice Mayor Jen Wolosin said that she would like to see the city eventually establish individual events for various faiths, instead of conglomerating them with preexisting religious celebrations. She suggested that city staff pursue events with Dia de los Muertos, Divali, and Chinese New Year. The events could be organized by residents who celebrate the holiday, creating community-driven events. While she acknowledged it could take some time for staff to establish a framework, she said that now was an opportunity to reevaluate.
"I think that we're at a point where we've kind of been always doing what we've been doing," Wolosin said. "And it's a moment to kind of evaluate who we're serving. ... I'd feel much more comfortable if the city were supporting these (diverse) types of events, and providing some funding for the events, providing space for the events, but not necessarily being in the driver's seat."
Combs said that he believes the city should be "additive" in its approach to various religious holidays. He said that the city should be cautious in having third parties host these citywide events, but he is in favor of engaging with the community to find who feels unrepresented in holiday celebrations.
"I don't think that there has to be this separation between the city hosting something because there is some religious origin to it ... I don't think that (a) government entity hosting these, you know, in some way means that it is being exclusive, or excluding all of the members of the community."
Mueller voiced his support for Wolosin's concept of creating a budget to add more events to the city's agenda for different cultures, which council member Combs also endorsed.
"I think it's great to honor traditions, but I think it's also good to make sure we're moving in a way to serve all," Wolosin said.
The City Council recommended city staff go forward with the proposed events and attempt to include as many additional events as possible, such as Breakfast with Santa and the Halloween march downtown. City staff will come back with a budget for additional events, and will take a leadership role if outside groups are included.
This year's Halloween event will occur at Burgess Park with shuttle service and include the march downtown and trick or treating at local businesses.