By Sam Trottenberg and Daniel Kool
Salem, home of the historic Salem witch trials and a traditional fall tourist hub, will close early on Halloween evening to limit transmission of COVID-19.
After experiencing a month of depressed tourism, the Halloween hotspot has discouraged visitors during its normally busy October season.
All businesses must close by 8 p.m. Oct. 30 and 31, and police will enforce restrictions on outdoor gatherings, according to Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem.
She said Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority will reduce its commuter rail service to discourage visitors, especially college and high school students. On Saturday, the first two and last two trains to Salem will be the only ones running.
Despite efforts by the city since early October to discourage travel and reduce the size of meandering crowds, Fox said, the streets have grown busier with each weekend.
“The crowds on Essex Street, it’s the equivalent of going to a Red Sox game or going to a [Patriots] game. We’re not allowed to do those things,” Fox said. “We shouldn’t be allowed to gather in that way, even with masks on.”
Many visitors come from outside Massachusetts, including from higher-risk states, Fox said. Residents remain anxious about the health risks posed by an influx of foot traffic.
“From a public health standpoint,” Fox said, “we really had to transition our communications and marketing to be strongly discouraging of people coming over the last two weekends of October.”
Fox added that the City’s efforts to reduce traffic have been comforting to some residents, many of whom live near the attractions downtown.
Currently, most attractions require visitors reserve a time in advance, Fox said, meaning those who arrive without prior planning are likely to be turned away and left with no options.
Salem’s annual Haunted Happenings festival, which Fox said would draw crowds of more than 50 people, was canceled in August.
Despite the pandemic and the cancellations it induced, she said many visitors have chosen to take their trips regardless.
“I think there’s a combination of visitors who don’t feel the pandemic is a threat to them, or they had reservations made long in advance and couldn’t get their deposits back,” Fox said, “so they kept their travel plans.”
The City’s most recent announcements have helped reduce visitors, Fox said, making crowd sizes more manageable.
While several other lower-risk Massachusetts cities had transitioned into Phase 3, Step 2 of the state’s reopening plan when the state initially permitted them to, Fox said Salem remained in Step 1 due to heightened tourism risks. Restaurants limit parties to six members, and indoor gatherings remain capped at 25.
October traffic usually makes up around 30 percent of Salem’s tourism revenue. Fox said even as attractions such as museums and restaurants fill up, they are struggling to take in as much revenue as they would during a typical year due to capacity limits.
Among the attractions struggling to balance capacity with demand is the Salem Witch Museum, director Tina Jordan said.
The museum offered 1,000 tickets online Saturday and saw nearly 1,400 people trying to purchase them as soon as they went on sale, Jordan said.
“The amazing thing that I think all of us in Salem have realized is that so many people come to Salem without a plan,” she said. “They know that it’s a beautiful little coastal town and they’re like, ‘let’s just take a drive up with no plans.’”
In response, Jordan said, the museum has had to turn away many would-be visitors.
The decades-old fixture has spent months changing the way it operates to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, she added.
“We’ve had to completely go to an online system,” Jordan said. “But, the demand is so great that it crashes our server.”
The costs of these transitions have meant sacrifices for the museum, Jordan said. The money the museum had set aside to “redo” its main presentation for its 50th anniversary in 2022, she said, was instead used for adjustments to help the museum operate at a lower capacity.
Despite the setback, Jordan said she remains hopeful things can return to normal after the pandemic.
“We can delay that 50th anniversary redo for a couple of years,” Jordan said. “I think there are a lot of things that we hope to do as we go forward.”