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Salem mayor urges public to postpone visiting 'Witch City’

Visitors took pictures at the "Samantha" statue in Salem's Lappin Park.
Visitors took pictures at the "Samantha" statue in Salem's Lappin Park.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The scariest thing in Salem this Halloween is not witches or ghosts — it is the deadly pandemic that has already taken the lives of thousands of people across Massachusetts.

Public officials, innkeepers, restaurant owners, cultural organizations, and local retailers have worked tirelessly to establish rules for safely visiting the Witch City. Nevertheless, the mayor is urging people to come another time.

“Our message to those planning a trip to Salem this October at this point is to postpone your visit,” Mayor Kim Driscoll said Friday. “Due to capacity restrictions, most businesses have changed to advance ticketing or, for restaurants, reservations are required. Therefore, if you do not have a ticket or a reservation right now, you won’t be able to get in anywhere.”

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Large-scale events have been canceled or severely restricted. There are no street parties or parades and no street performers or vendors along the pedestrian mall this fall. Visitors are required to wear masks downtown at all times, and major attractions such as the Peabody Essex Museum have greatly reduced the number of people allowed indoors at any time.

“We want our residents, visitors, and workers to be safe, and our visitors to have the best possible experience when they come to Salem,” Driscoll said, “and that’s just not possible this year.”

On Friday, Driscoll announced additional restrictions in downtown Salem, especially focused along Essex Street, which, despite overall lower visitor numbers to the city this month, had seen large crowds the first two weeks of October. She said access would be restricted from the Peabody Essex Museum side of the mall, tents prohibited, and additional barricades set up to limit entry lines.

Halloween falls on a full moon Saturday this year. Prior to the pandemic, said Destination Salem executive director Kate Fox, the city was expecting as many as “500,000 visitors during a normal October and 75,000 to 100,000 just on the holiday.”

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This year virtual tours, costume contests, and shopping can be found on the Haunted Happenings website (www.hauntedhappenings.org), along with COVID-19 Preparedness in Salem information and the Massachusetts travel guidelines.

The risk of COVID-19 hasn’t been enough to discourage true fans of the Witch City. Gina Donovan, 49, of Agawam, visited in August and was looking forward to making the two-hour trip to Salem in October with appropriate precautions.

“Masks, social distancing, got my hand sanitizer, and just patience. That’s about it!” said Donovan.

Kayla Teresa of Ware, who “loves Halloween and history,” was planning her first Salem visit this month. Undeterred by the pandemic, she planned to wear a mask and follow all the safety protocols.

To make planning ahead easier, a free Destination Salem app, available at the Apple App Store and Google Play, provides the latest updates on everything Salem, including events, museums and attractions, shops, restaurants, parking, and safety guidelines.

To make planning ahead easier, a free Destination Salem app, available at the Apple App Store and Google Play, provides the latest updates on everything Salem, including events, museums and attractions, shops, restaurants, parking, and safety guidelines.

“If you plan on coming to the Salem Witch Museum, you must book your tickets in advance. No tickets will be sold at the door,” said Tina Jordan, director. “To allow for social distancing, we are limiting capacity. We cannot safely have long lines of people waiting to get in.”

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In order to balance interest with restricted attendance, the Witch Museum has increased the amount of its digital and live-streaming programming this fall.

October at The Salem Inn is usually booked solid a year in advance and many guests return year after year, according to owners Diane and Dick Pabich. “A lot of our regulars canceled this year when the pandemic hit,” said Diane Pabich. “The good news is that we are almost full again for October. Most of the bookings are from people that live within driving distance, especially New England, New York, and New Jersey.”

Working to provide a safe stay, the innkeepers have have turned to technology, instituting a “contactless check-in process.” To control the number of people in the dining room, Salem Inn guests now use the Open Table app to reserve their breakfast time at check-in.

Meanwhile retailers in downtown Salem have been working to accommodate visitors safely.

Partners Alexis Pharae and Benjamin Addam of Vampfangs have instituted a virtual queue line to safely schedule customers visiting their popular vampire- and Gothic-themed shop on Essex Street.

“There will be signage in the windows of the store with a QR code that will direct them to a webpage. The page will have a place for them to join the virtual line,” explained Addam. “We have a local vampire working the door who will be able to assist guests with the virtual queue.”

Additionally, Vampfangs offers private appointments for people who want to shop early or late in order to avoid the crowds and an online store at vampfangs.com for those who choose not to visit in person.

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Considering the downtown mask mandate, it is not surprising that Pharae reports that masks and bandanas featuring original Salem- and vampire-themed designs are among the most popular items at Vampfangs this fall.

Despite all the planning, this has been a uniquely unpredictable season for Salem.

“We have a good public safety playbook for a normal Halloween,” Mayor Driscoll said in an earlier interview. “This year we’re calling audibles.”

Linda Greenstein can be reached at greensteinlm@gmail.com.

This story has been updated.