SALEM — It’ll take a village to get through October this year, and then even more to keep the village intact once October ends.
A “perfect storm” of Salem’s past self-marketing achievements and the stir-craziness of day-trippers amid the pandemic is causing visitors to come to Salem in droves. This is triggering several issues that officials are trying to grapple with as the Halloween season rolls on.
This past weekend, “we weren’t as busy as last year’s first October weekend,” Mayor Kim Driscoll said Wednesday. “We had about, I’d say, three-quarters of the crowd, but you only had about one-quarter of the things available for people to do.
“Then you have occupancy restrictions on everything else that is open,” Driscoll continued. “Heeding those occupancy restrictions left people pooling outside in queues to get in, and the line management is where I think we had the biggest challenges.”
They’re challenges that can ripple outward. Colliding lines of tourists can increase exposure risks that could create clusters of COVID-19 cases that affect tourists and businesses alike. So the city is calling on its businesses to do everything in their power to work with city officials in running a safe season.
“A lot of the work we’re doing around this pandemic is about mitigating risks. The virus is still here, but we all need to do everything we can to mitigate risks, and that means working together,” Driscoll said. “It’s the only way we’re really going to overcome this.”
This week, The Salem News is hosting a series of live conversations on its Facebook page looking at Salem’s tourism draw during the COVID-19 pandemic. Monday and Tuesday focused on the crowds arriving in Salem and why they’re still coming out despite the health risks. Wednesday’s conversation featured Driscoll and city health agent Dave Greenbaum to discuss efforts the Witch City’s leaders have undertaken to get to this point, and what is expected in the weeks ahead. The interviews can all be watched at facebook.com/SalemMANews.
This coming weekend could be a problem for the city. Columbus Day Weekend is generally viewed as one of the biggest tourist weekends each year, aside from the final weekend before Halloween. On top of that, early forecasts from the National Weather Service show temperatures Saturday to be in the high 60s and low 70s with very little chance of rain.
City leaders have latched onto a new buzzword, “de-densifying,” to explain their greatest challenge of dealing with congested areas such as the Pedestrian Mall, a brick- and cobblestone-laden stretch of Essex Street that largely prohibits vehicle traffic. It’s regarded as the heart of Salem’s commercial engine and is the main place that tourists gather each season. The road is nearly impassible on Halloween night, when tens of thousands of revelers congregate on it at the same time.
While Essex Street businesses have generally adhered to occupancy limits under COVID-19, the spike in visitors caused many waiting lines on the Pedestrian Mall to commingle, thus creating further exposure risks for the people standing in them.
“The biggest challenge we’re going to see is those lines of people that are pooling on the Pedestrian Mall to get in someone’s business,” Greenbaum said. “We’re relying on businesses to assist us with that sort of management of the lines.”
The success stories of the season can be heard in the businesses that have found ways to eliminate the lines. The Salem Witch Museum has put up signs outside when tickets are sold out to cut down on crowds standing around. Officials have also lauded Hex and Omen, two prime destinations for visitors each season, after the businesses introduced line management like that seen at Market Basket.
“Hex and Omen are doing deli ticket numbers, which is amazing to see a deli-number spool outside Omen and Hex with a digital display — ‘now serving 85,’” said Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, on Tuesday. “There are ways for the businesses to work within the parameters of the reopening guidelines.”
The businesses, however, have the cards stacked against them. Strong October seasons are what allow these businesses to survive the regular tourism drought from November to March in good years — never mind a global public health crisis hurting the bottom line. This year, everyone must work harder to “make sure there are sustainable plans in place to support them going forward in November and these winter months when we know it gets much thinner,” Driscoll said.
But it’s also a two-way street. Many businesses have been great to work with, Driscoll said, while others have viewed outdoor crowd management as being a city responsibility. That calls for a stronger partnership between city leaders and those in the downtown business community.
“Some of our folks were struggling with, ‘how do you move people out of the line when they’ve been sitting there for 20 minutes already?’ They’re committed,” Driscoll said. “This weekend, we’re going to work — we hope — in concert with our businesses to try and prevent that from happening.”
Series continues Thursday
On Thursday, The Salem News will host its sixth conversation in its series of live streams on Halloween in Salem amid the coronavirus pandemic. At 12 p.m., the paper will be joined by Kylie Sullivan, executive director of Salem Main Streets, to discuss how residents can get involved to take ownership of the city's health and safety throughout the season. Watch live at facebook.com/SalemMANews.
The series wraps up Friday at 11 a.m., when The Salem News will again host Driscoll and add Dennis King, acting police Chief, and Fred Ryan, police Capt., to discuss the early thinking on Halloween this year and what residents can expect.