How Salem will be different this October due to COVID-19

"This is not the year to spontaneously arrive in Salem in October."

A photo taken on Salem's Essex Street during Haunted Happenings in 2014. –John Blanding / The Boston Globe

This was supposed to be an epic year for the historic city of Salem, which welcomes half a million visitors each October for its monthlong Haunted Happenings celebration.

“It was supposed to be our biggest year ever,” said Kate Fox, director of Destination Salem, the city’s office of tourism and cultural affairs. “We have two full moons, we have five weekends in October, “Hubie Halloween” comes out on Oct. 7 — the new Adam Sandler movie, which filmed here last year. We were ready for the biggest year.”

Last year, Salem Haunted Happenings offered about 700 events, Fox said. This year, most events have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, she said.

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“Massachusetts will continue to be in phase 3 of the reopening guidelines in October,” said Fox, “Which means no events for more than 50 people outdoors and more than 25 people indoors are permitted. That applies to almost every event that was scheduled for Salem Haunted Happenings.”

Folks can still visit Salem’s museums, restaurants, shops, and walking tours next month, Fox said. Visitors should check out salem.org and hauntedhappenings.org before visiting, and out-of-state visitors should go to mass.gov for information about the Massachusetts COVID-19 travel order, she said. Visitors will also find information on the Destination Salem app.

“There are a lot of changes,” said Fox. “Plan in advance. This is not the year to spontaneously arrive in Salem in October.”

Ahead, discover how Salem has changed this October due to COVID-19.

Many events have been canceled

Many Haunted Happenings events have been canceled, including: Haunted Happenings Grand Parade; Mayor’s Night Out; Kids’ costume parade; Lanterns in the Village; Biz Baz Street Fair; Salem Food Truck Festival; Howl-o-ween pet parade; Outdoor food vendors, including Fiesta Shows food trucks; the Great Salem Pumpkin Walk; Haunted Harmonies; the Creative Collective Merchant Marketplace vendors; the kids carnival on Salem Common, and costume balls and nightlife events.

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While most museums are open, the New England Pirate Museum and Phillips House museum are closed, Fox said. Haunted houses are also closed, and so is Charter Street Cemetery, though the adjacent Salem Witch Trials Memorial is open. Bars are not open in Salem, per the Massachusetts reopening guidelines, and alcoholic beverages may only be ordered while sitting at a table after food is ordered.

Some canceled events are happening virtually this year, such as the Howl-o-ween pet parade and experiences by Cry Innocent. Also, shoppers can still shop online from Creative Collective Merchant Marketplace vendors.

So what can you do in Salem this October?

Visitors can check out museums, shops, restaurants, and tours by foot, trolley, and water, Fox said. Also, for those looking to dine outside, 52 of Salem’s restaurants have expanded outdoor seating, she said.

Museums such as the Salem Witch Museum, Witch Dungeon Museum, and Witch House are open, but have capacity limits, Fox said.  The House of the Seven Gables will not host October performances this year and guests cannot go inside, but audio tours of the gardens are available. The Peabody Essex Museum will offer a new exhibit called “The Salem Witch Trials 1692” on Sept. 26, which will run through April 4 and include rarely shown original witch trial documents.

Walking tours in Salem, which typically allow up to 50 people per tour, are limited this year to 10 people per tour, Fox said, so visitors are advised to book tickets in advance because slots are selling out quickly. In fact, visitors should beware that many businesses are requiring or recommending reservations due to capacity limits this year, Fox said.

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“This isn’t the year to just come and wander,” Fox said. “This is the year to come with some intention and support the small business community. Enjoy Salem, enjoy the fall foliage. But physical distancing rules are in effect.”

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial in Salem. —Destination Salem

How to get to Salem

Fox said her office typically encourages visitors to take public transportation to Salem in October, though she realizes some folks are less inclined to do so this year due to the pandemic.

Salem Ferry has suspended operations for the rest of the season, Fox said. Visitors can take the train or bus into Salem, she said, and it’s a good idea to follow the MBTA Parking Twitter account for the latest MBTA parking garage information.

Those who drive may not park in resident-only parking zones and the city increases parking prices in the garages and Church Street lot on October weekends, Fox noted. It’s a good idea to leave your car in one place as the city is very walkable, she said.

“We are not running satellite parking this year,” Fox said. “We’re not running the shuttle service. Everything has been scaled way back.”

You’ll need to follow health and safety rules

Salem is mandating that all people over the age of 2 wear masks both indoors and outdoors in the downtown business district as well as in public parks, Fox said.

“If you refuse, then you can get a fine,” she said.

Violators are fined $50 for the first offense, $150 for the second offense, and $300 for the third offense, according to the city.

Essex Street in downtown Salem simply cannot be filled with “shoulder-to-shoulder people” this year due to social distancing rules, she said.

“There are things to do that we want you to come and do,” she said. “But this isn’t the year just to come to say you went to Salem or to take a selfie.”

Lines will be discouraged, she said.

“We are not going to be allowing long lines outside of businesses,” Fox said. “We have public health ambassadors, we have our board of health agents, and the police are going to be moving people along.”

Visitors should familiarize themselves with the city’s health and safety rules before coming, she said.

“Our priority is keeping our residents, employees, and visitors safe and healthy,” she said. “What we don’t want to see is Salem on the front page of the news because we’re a COVID-19 super spreader.”

Be prepared to use portable toilets

“Public restrooms in Salem are all closed right now,” Fox said. “They’ve been replaced with portable toilets.”

Visitors can find restroom information on the city’s website and app.

“We always bring in portable toilets in October but they’re more important this year because people are really strict about who’s using their restrooms,” Fox said.

What about Halloween?

Halloween falls on a Saturday this year.

“I don’t know what Halloween night is going to look like,” Fox said. “Our events have been canceled. We usually have live music and beer gardens and fireworks. Those have all been canceled this year. The city is still evaluating the best course of action for Halloween night.”

For those who have never been to Salem in October and are considering traveling a long distance to do so, “this isn’t the year,” Fox said.

“We will be back, we’re going to be back,” she said. “Come for a future Haunted Happenings.”

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