No haunted houses. No large gatherings — meaning no costume parades or balls. No creepy street performers scaring gleeful tourists on the Essex Street pedestrian mall. These are a few of the measures Salem — aka Witch City — is adopting to reduce crowd density this most unusual Halloween.
"I don't know if you've been here on October weekends and it's shoulder to shoulder," Kate Fox said referring to past years on the brick walkway that's flanked by witch-themed businesses. In 2020, she said that would be "a COVID nightmare."
Fox is the executive director of the city's marketing organization Destination Salem. We spoke within eyesight of a big new banner that stretches over the mall's wide walkway. It's one of many visual reminders for Halloween and history lovers that masks (not the creepy kinds) are required everywhere at all times. The signage hangs over where the Destination Salem tourism booth usually sits, but that's out of commission this year because Halloween marketing has been reduced.
“Our priority is to keep the residents, the visitors and the employees safe, so we just expect everybody to follow the rules and the public health guidelines that we have in place,” Fox said, adding the annual Haunted Happenings are also taking a hiatus. “The events have been canceled, programs are different, and research in advance is key.”
It's a delicate balance to want and need visitors who fuel the city's economy while also being nervous about their arrival. “We're really fortunate that so many people have kept their plans to come and support the business community,” Fox said. "If you're gonna come, we want you to have fun and enjoy the experience — but it's going to be challenging.”
The city is asking that all tourists — from Massachusetts day-trippers to long-haulers from out of state — abide by Gov. Charlie Baker's travel orders and book all activities in advance. On Facebook, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll wrote, “This is not the year to come to Salem spontaneously and without a plan," and called this month, "an October like no other."
There are still plenty of things for visitors to do, including spooky history walking tours around town, which are now capped at 10 people. Museums, including the Peabody Essex Museum (which has a new exhibition about the Salem Witch Trials) and the Witch Museum, are open with reduced capacity and timed tickets. Visitors will likely wait six feet apart outside witchcraft shops or to get tarot card readings until there's adequate space inside. Fox said 50 of the city's restaurants have outdoor seating and urges people to make reservations.
She explained how it's been “a wild year for tourism” in Salem that started with the COVID-19 shutdown in March. The city has been working to rebuild the industry that attracts more than one million people a year who, Fox said, spend an estimated $140-million-dollars. Normally 30% of annual tourism revenue is generated in October. “We initially thought that we wouldn't have any tourism this year, that the virus would keep people away,” Fox said, “and we were wrong.”
Labor Day was so busy that city officials had to reevaluate their strategies for Halloween season. “A lot of people are coming from New England and from the lower risk states. But there are also people who are coming from further away,” Fox said. Visitors from high-risk states are required to fill out a Massachusetts health travel form.
Salem was deemed a pandemic red zone over the summer. That status has been reduced to yellow and the city wants to keep it that way. Mayor Driscoll isn't moving forward with the governor's shift to step two of phase three until November, which means for now restaurants will only seat tables of six and public gatherings are limited to 25.
To help would-be tourists navigate their time exploring the city, Fox's organization has galvanized the Destination Salem website and travel app. She said there will be push notifications for traffic, parking and public health advisories. There's also an online Downtown Crowd Gauge that tracks numbers of cars in the MBTA and Museum Place parking lots. A graphic that's updated Fridays through Sundays reports density in six levels, red being the highest.
Fox said Salem was expecting well over a half million people to visit over the course of this October with its five weekends, two full moons and daylight savings time on Nov. 1. “So Halloween technically has an extra hour,” Fox mused. “I mean, it was gonna be amazing. We were geared up for our biggest year.”
The new Adam Sandler movie, “Hubie Halloween,” just opened, too, and was filmed on location in the city. It's the first Hollywood production since “Hocus Pocus” where Salem plays Salem.
The production left orange lights in the city's common that Fox said has become a popular and safe spot for selfies. The movie is one of many ways to visit Salem without actually making a physical trip, she said, adding, “We hope it inspires people to want to come back next year."
Here are a few other ways to visit Salem from home this year: