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Salem to impose COVID-19 testing requirement for large events in October

Visitors to Salem's Haunted Happenings in 2016.John Blanding, Boston Globe staff

Salem’s Board of Health voted unanimously Friday evening to mandate COVID-19 testing for attendees at all gatherings of more than 100 in indoor public venues during October, when thousands will gather for Haunted Happenings, the city’s month-long Halloween celebration.

Tests must be performed within 72 hours of the event, the panel decided during the one-hour-and-15-minute teleconferenced meeting, after pushback from business leaders who said a shorter testing window would be “a logistical nightmare.”

The mandate, which also applies to non-Halloween events, such as a wedding reception, will be in effect Oct. 1 to Nov. 1.

The five-member board voted in favor of the measure, pointing to the dangers of the more transmissible Delta variant of the virus and to rising rates of infection.

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“The case load that we’ve been seeing here in Salem and throughout Massachusetts has increased — it has not plateaued,” said Dr. Jeremy Schiller, the board’s chair. “It is continuing to increase. … We’ve learned that people who are vaccinated can still get the virus, be asymptomatic, and spread the virus. We know that obviously is true with the unvaccinated.”

Mayor Kim Driscoll warned that many who work at the city’s Halloween festivals and parties are employed at more than one such event, and they may then go to home to children under 12, who are not yet approved for vaccination, or to family members with immune deficiencies.

“We want to make sure they’re safe,” Driscoll said. “We know this Delta variant is explosive when it comes to transmission. Absolutely explosive. One event with folks who have this Delta variant can lead to a superspreader event very easily.”

Driscoll said she hopes to work closely with venue managers to ensure that their guests can easily get tested, and the city will set up a facility downtown, to offer free testing to all who need it.

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COVID-19 hospitalizations are up in the city, Driscoll said, with patients from age 17 to 89 currently being treated at Salem Hospital. Forty percent are so-called breakthrough cases among people who had been vaccinated, she said.

Nine community members and local merchants addressed the board, some raising questions about whether Salem and its partner Curative, the company that operated several mass vaccination sites in Massachusetts, could handle the influx of visitors needing to be tested.

John Andrews, who owns Creative Collective and organizes several large events in downtown Salem, said that some visitors arrive just in time for events, and the logistics of testing them all are unworkable.

“I think we’re adding an unnecessary element to Halloween and October in Salem in general,” Andrews said. “I don’t think mitigation is bad. I would love to say that this is going to work. … The logistics of October in Salem are so beyond the scale of what most people understand until they actually get there and they do it.”

Kay Lynch, director of the Salem Horror Fest, said the city should have foreseen the uptick in cases and planned for additional safety precautions months earlier, rather than waiting until two weeks before October.

“I’m not a health professional, but it was pretty obvious that we were going to end up in this situation,” Lynch said. “I just think that this is three months too late, and it is putting a great burden on people who have been messaging to their customers … one thing, and now we all have to figure out how to change that messaging.”

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Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this report misidentified Kay Lynch.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.