SALEM — Lacking a border wall, this city can do only so much to protect itself this Halloween.
Mayor Kim Driscoll has been trying to scare them off, but the throngs of superheroes and the undead will not be denied their annual pilgrimage to Witch City — pandemic or no.
On Friday morning, visitors gathered on corners and milled about Essex Street, most wearing their masks. A machine belched fog onto Liberty Street as customers queued to get into stores and wandered through a memorial. The Witch Museum was already sold out for the day.
Like every city with responsible leadership right now, Salem is aiming for a perfect, and possibly mythical, sweet spot: Too few visitors mean businesses and workers suffer; too many and the city veers toward super-spreader territory.
By last week, it was clear Salem was missing that mark, by a lot. Even though Driscoll had canceled the big events that usually draw throngs here in October, the city was still overrun with revelers to a degree that made distancing challenging, endangering everybody.
Many of those visitors were sweet and patient people. Others, not so much. Some, who can come from as far away as Florida and Michigan, are annoyed at rules limiting capacity in stores and restaurants, rules put in place to protect them.
“Before the pandemic, this was a very social, communal, joyous place, and the staff was excited to come to work,” said Chris Lohring, who runs Notch Brewing, which also has a taproom. “Now our staff is put in harm’s way and the critiques coming at them take a toll.”
Lohring will keep brewing, but he has shut down the taproom for the rest of October. It’s the only way he can protect his team from “an entitled customer with no empathy and no regard for safety."
And it’s not just bars and restaurants: Wicked Good Books — which is struggling enough to have launched a Go Fund Me appeal — announced on Oct. 11 that it was shutting down on weekends for the rest of the month because some customers had refused to wear masks and use hand sanitizer.
Last week, with Governor Charlie Baker at her side, Driscoll announced measures designed to head off disaster as Halloween approaches: Parking garages would close at 2 p.m. Friday and at noon on the weekends; fewer commuter trains would stop in the city to make it harder for the college kids and others who usually pour into the city to get there; businesses would have to close at 8 p.m. on weekends until November.
Let us pause here to note what a comfort it is to live in a part of the country where our leaders respect science and are willing to make painful and potentially unpopular decisions in an effort to protect their constituents. Governors in other states (looking at you, Georgia and both Dakotas) traffic in Trumpism and toxic individualism, undermining pandemic safety measures and endangering their citizens. Here, Baker and Driscoll are trying to shut down much of Halloween, and they are stopping trains to make it happen.
Admittedly, not putting your own constituents at greater risk of a deadly virus is a pretty low bar to clear. But this is where we are, and no part of doing right is easy: Every measure Driscoll has introduced since this pandemic began has made somebody angry.
“I’m either killing every resident or killing every business,” she said.
Driscoll, like the rest of us, can see the numbers edging higher, infections in Massachusetts rising again. The city of 44,000 has already lost 43 people to COVID, which has disproportionately hit the city’s Latino residents. As of Thursday, the city’s infection rate is in the state’s yellow zone. Keeping it out of the red will be costly.
As high as 18 percent in July, unemployment in the city is still at 10 percent. And now we’re headed into winter, without much of the federal assistance that kept people afloat over the summer, and with little prospect of further help, thanks to a soulless GOP. Here, like everywhere, too many people live right on the edge.
In Salem, a city that thrives on fright, it is downright scary that doing the right thing is so very hard. And still, so many flooded into the city on Saturday that the mayor had to shut down part of the pedestrian mall.
There is a message here for all of us. Not a happy one.