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‘To me, Halloween is Christmas’: Amid pandemic, Salem entertains lighter crowds

People dressed in ghost costumes walked along the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall on Saturday afternoon in Salem.Erin Clark / Globe Staff

The pandemic took its toll on Halloween festivities in Salem on Saturday, as fewer people visited the city following requests by Mayor Kim Driscoll and other leaders to rethink holiday plans in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Salem is usually one big party on Halloween, as throngs in costume pour into the North Shore city to celebrate imaginary things that go bump in the night. But the very real threat of COVID-19 led the city to cancel many events and curtail many of the activities, like its traditional Haunted Happenings, that draw tourists to Salem.

“We are definitely seeing lighter crowds than a typical Halloween and so far, the weekend has been very manageable,” Driscoll told the Globe late Saturday afternoon.

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Crowds of people swarmed Salem on Halloween, despite Governor Baker urging Halloween goers to not visit during the month of October. Erin Clark / Globe Staff

Those visits came as the state Department of Public Health reported 1,292 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts on Saturday, along with 16 new confirmed deaths due to the disease. The latest figures bring the total number of residents who have had the coronavirus to 154,521, while the state’s confirmed death toll climbed to 9,766.

In Salem, crowds were smaller Saturday than in past years, and visitors largely followed health guidelines, wearing masks and staying socially distanced from one another, according to the mayor and police chief. No arrests had been made by about 6 p.m., according to Acting Police Chief Dennis King.

Earlier in the day, King said in an e-mail that “not everyone is heeding the message” to stay away but those who came were largely following guidelines.

King said visitors from a variety of states also had come to the city, including many from New York.

Lisa Deluca walked along the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall with her husband Bill Deluca while dressed up like clowns on Saturday afternoon.Erin Clark / Globe Staff

“Definitely much fewer than traditional year Halloween,” King said about the crowds in an e-mail. “But this isn’t a traditional year and that’s why we have instituted all these mitigating plans.”

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Among the visitors to the city Saturday was Ricky Sampson, 59, of Holden, who has come to Salem every Halloween season with his family to celebrate the holiday. Normally, the large crowds in Salem keep them away on the holiday itself — but this year, they decided to come because they thought the crowds would be smaller.

“To me, Halloween is Christmas. It’s my favorite by far, its the Sampson family holiday,” Sampson said. “The people of Salem feel the same way.”

People dressed up in dinosaur costumes paraded along the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall on Saturday afternoon. Erin Clark / Globe Staff

Maria O’Connor, 52, of Melrose and her husband also visited Salem on Halloween, and she said they felt safe while wearing masks, remaining outdoors, and staying apart from other people.

“My feeling is that because of the colder temperatures, it was much less likely for us to pick up anything,” O’Connor said.

During a recent press conference, Driscoll said that normally, Salem welcomes tourists from “around the globe” during the Halloween season, but “this is just not the year.”

Daniel Payne, dressed as Pennywise, posed for photos while he walked along the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall on Saturday afternoon. Erin Clark / Globe Staff

Salem did not cancel trick-or-treating, leaving that decision to families. But not much else went unchanged this Halloween. The city’s parking garages and lots were scheduled to close to entering traffic at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, while downtown businesses have a mandatory closing time of 8 p.m. this weekend.

Salem’s MBTA parking garage will have restricted access for local parking from noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, according to a city statement. During these times only commuter and transit users will be allowed to park in the garage. Fewer commuter rail trains will stop in Salem to help cut down on crowds.

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Salem has suspended its reopening and remains in Phase III, Step 1, according to the statement, and has called on people to avoid Halloween gatherings. Driscoll, in an e-mail Saturday praised the city’s business community and residents for their help during the crisis.

Sean Sampson pushed a wheelchair decorated for Halloween along the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall in Salem. Erin Clark / Globe Staff

Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, in an interview Saturday called 2020 the year of “impossible choices." Driscoll, she said, worked to balance public health concerns with finding ways to allow businesses to serve customers. Fox hopes that will help put businesses in a stronger position for the coming winter.

“I hope that’s enough, but we will have to wait and see what this winter will bring,” Fox said.

Sheila Manzana, who has owned Bella Verona restaurant on Essex Street with her husband for 25 years, also praised the mayor and other officials for working to support the business community by allowing measures like outdoor dining.

People dressed up like air dancers performed for other Halloween goers in Salem on Saturday evening. Erin Clark / Globe Staff

“The city has done a really good job, and they have enabled the businesses to make money in the month of October,” Manzana said. “I haven’t seen anybody walk by without a mask on.”

Erin Clark of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.