SALEM — City-run Haunted Happenings events are effectively canceled this year as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to escalate, but officials are still hoping visitors will come to Salem this fall to support businesses.

Officials expect the state to remain in the third phase of its reopening plan through the fall. That prohibits gatherings of more than 25 people indoors and 100 outside, making many of the Haunted Happenings hallmarks impossible to pull off. 

A dozen events have been canceled, among them the Haunted Happenings grand parade that opens the season, food truck festivals and vendors, the Great Salem Pumpkin Walk, Creative Collective's weekend merchant marketplaces and the Mayor's Night Out.

"This wasn't easy," Mayor Kim Driscoll said. "Many people in Salem and throughout the region benefit from the activities in Salem in October. Many of us are going to be disappointed that your favorite festive activities may not be able to take place in their current form, but I think it also underscores that, as a community, we're committed to doing our part to curb the spread of the virus."

For the last few decades, Salem has grown from the ashes of urban renewal to become a tourism hotspot. Over the last 15 years, officials have worked to manage growing October crowds through targeting specific audiences with programming via Haunted Happenings. Forcing family-friendly fare into the mix was credited for effectively ending all gang-related activity and Halloween-night violence that dominated headlines until 2007. 

That has become a problem in 2020, where a global pandemic is expected to bring Salem what Driscoll called "a diminished October."

But even then, crowds are still coming to the Witch City. The recent uptick in foot traffic recently prompted officials to put a mask order in place for all of downtown, making face coverings mandatory even in outdoor spaces like the Pedestrian Mall. The response has been "progressive" with fewer issues popping up as time goes on, Driscoll said.

"As we're seeing an uptick in visitors on historic streets and sidewalks that can fill up quickly, we want to make sure that residents, visitors and employees are safe," Driscoll said. "It's making it hard to have that physical distance."

It remains unclear what the tourism market will look like for October. Before COVID-19, the month was forecast to be the biggest on record — it hits five weekends, with Halloween landing on not just a Saturday but a blue moon, and that had many expecting crowds to be unparalleled.

Being said, Halloween can't be "canceled." The season is expected to continue, largely on the backs of private businesses that are trying to make it through the pandemic intact.

"One of the important things for people to understand is that Haunted Happenings is hundreds of individual, independent events," said Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem. "The city of Salem doesn't have the authority to cancel Haunted Happenings outright. There are organizers and events who may be able to fit within the state guidelines and requirements."

And that's something many businesses have been doing anyway, according to Driscoll.

"Look at how quickly some of our businesses have pivoted in online sales or doing creative outside dining experiences," she said. "If there are safe ways to explore Salem that fit within the guidelines, we'd certainly be open to them."

For that, officials are continuing to bill this season as one for the locals to explore their own backyards.

"Locals often stay away from Salem during Haunted Happenings because 'the tourists are coming.' This is their season," Fox said. "There's still a lot to do in Salem, and it's still a good time to visit — but it's going to be a very different Haunted Happenings season than we've had in the past."

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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