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Known for its dark history, the Witch City’s annual Halloween festivities traditionally draw large crowds. But officials this year hope business closures, fines, and limited transit and parking options will keep tourists at bay.
Salem, Massachusetts is closed for Halloween this year.
That’s the message local government leaders and tourism officials want to convey as they hope to keep large crowds from gathering in the “Witch City” for spooky season.
As a city best known for its dark history—the Salem witch trials of 1692 that led to the execution of 20 people wrongly accused of witchcraft—throngs of Halloween lovers descend annually on Salem in October. But this year in addition to canceling all public festivities, officials announced they will restrict public transit, close parking garages, mandate business closures and triple fines to discourage large gatherings.
“I want to express how unusual and abnormal it is to tell people not to come to Salem in October,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll during a press conference this week announcing the restrictions. “We normally welcome throngs of visitors from around the globe to our community. This is just not the year.”
Across the country, local governments have cancelled typical Halloween events and are either discouraging residents from trick-or-treating or asking them to take precautions if they do so. But cancelling Halloween in Salem comes at a much bigger cost.
The city first held its Haunted Happenings festival in 1982, which over the decades has turned into a multi-weekend event that attracts visitors throughout October. More than 1 million people visit Salem each year, generating about $140 million in tourist spending, according to Destination Salem, the city’s marketing organization. About $33 million in tourism spending was made in October alone last year.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker joined Driscoll at a press conference this week to discuss the measures the state is taking to assist, noting public health officials’ concerns about a possible resurgence of the pandemic. The state has reported nearly 143,000 Covid-19 infections and 9,559 deaths to date.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority would typically run more trains to accommodate crowds trying to get to Salem over the next two weekends. But this year, commuter trains from Boston will skip the Salem stop at key times on specific days, Baker said.
City-run parking garages will close to entering traffic at 2 p.m. Friday and at noon on Saturday, Sunday and Oct. 30, 31 and Nov. 1.
Acknowledging the many times he’s come to Salem in the past to celebrate, Baker said the event—which can draw up to 60,000 people each day—is the sort of crowded gathering that people should be trying to avoid. He also discouraged residents from hosting indoor parties for Halloween, but stopped short of telling parents not to take children trick-or-treating. Instead Baker encouraged people to wear masks and to keep all interactions short.
A city-run website will provide updates on the size of crowds in downtown Salem over both upcoming weekends.
As the city has done in the past, fines for offenses such as noise violations, resident parking violations, and public intoxication will triple in cost during the last weekend of October.
Salem is also asking downtown businesses, including restaurants, museums and retail shops, to close or curtail activity by 8 p.m. each night this weekend. The city will order a mandatory 8 p.m. closure over Halloween weekend.
“We need to make sure we don’t allow the street party to get started,” Driscoll said.
The mayor said she understands the predicament businesses may be in, noting that Salem’s hotel tax revenues are down 55% in the first quarter of fiscal 2021 and meal tax revenue is down 35%. But Driscoll said business owners she’s spoken with plan to cooperate and she hopes the city will not have to take action to shut anyone down.
“It’s about more than October,” Driscoll said. “Salem will be here after Halloween.”
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.
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