For a glorious moment Saturday, things looked, well, normal in Salem: Throngs of zombies, witches, and the occasional corpse bride walked the city’s downtown streets to help ring in the Halloween season.
But as the festivities drew upbeat visitors from across the region, even appreciative revelers like Hilary Grimes couldn’t shake pandemic concerns.
“It’s lovely — Salem is finally Salem again,” said Grimes, as she walked through the city’s common with her husband and two children. “But it’s hard because the pandemic is very much not over. People are still getting sick.”
A year ago, the deadly threat posed by the coronavirus forced communities like Salem and Topsfield to drastically cut back on their traditional fall events. In Salem, that meant a scaled-back celebration of Halloween, while in Topsfield, the community’s historic fair was canceled.
Now, even as the state is more than midway into the pandemic’s second year, it has made strides in its fight against COVID-19.
Vaccines are widely available and nearly three-quarters of the state’s 7 million residents have received at least one shot. Schools have reopened, though with mask requirements in place. Large-scale events are back, like football games in Foxborough and the running of the Boston Marathon, scheduled for Oct. 11, though with cautionary measures in place.
On Saturday, as Salem held its annual Zombie Walk, while the Topsfield Fair greeted guests back for activities like making their own honeycomb candles, or visiting the fair’s “cow of the day,” with restrictions in place.
In Topsfield, Kaitlyn Kelley, 31, of Cambridge, said the hullabaloo at the fair distracted the dozen or so members of her family from the need to wear masks for an afternoon. Her sons, ages 4 and 1, had wandered over to a nearby turkey cage.
“It’s hard to remember to wear one when you’re caught up in the excitement,” Kelley said, realizing she wasn’t masked. “I probably should put mine on right now.”
Topsfield and Salem have each imposed COVID-19 cautionary measures. At the fair, masks were required inside all fairground buildings, and free masks were distributed from information booths, according to the fair’s website. The Topsfield Health Department was also at the event to administer vaccines.
Organizers asked anyone who had been sick in the past 24 hours to not attend.
In Salem, which has seen increasing numbers of new cases in recent weeks, the city is keeping its guard up as it welcomes visitors to celebrate its “Haunted Happenings” for Halloween season. Masks must be worn in indoor public areas, and COVID-19 testing is required 72 hours in advance for attendees at large indoor gatherings.
Mayor Kim Driscoll has encouraged any visitor to get tested before traveling to Salem, and the city has opened a rapid antigen testing site at the Peabody Essex Museum on Wednesdays through Saturdays in October, she said on Twitter.
“Testing is a key way to cut down on COVID transmission among residents + visitors,” Driscoll said in the Twitter post.
Dr. David Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and a Boston University epidemiologist, said people should feel safe participating, even unmasked, in outdoor events, where the chance of transmission is low. Indoors, they should take precautions like masking and maintaining distance.
That masking and distancing caution should also extend, he said, to areas where people queue up, like in lines to get into a stadium or order food.
“People need to take it seriously, but I think people can try to live their lives,” Hamer said. “If they’re vaccinated and they focus on outdoor-type events as much as possible ... if they’re indoors, I think mask use is going to be a wise precaution for many months to come.”
The state continues to battle the pandemic. On Friday, the state reported more than 1,500 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, along with 20 new deaths. Those figures, which were the latest available Saturday, brought the death toll here to 18,260. Nearly 760,000 people in Massachusetts have been sickened by the coronavirus.
Roughly two-thirds of the state’s population is fully vaccinated.
But until low vaccination rates in other parts of the country improve, there is still a threat of infected people traveling to states with better vaccination coverage, like Massachusetts.
“The risk is much lower here, but not zero,” Hamer said.
In Topsfield Saturday, tightly packed crowds surrounded stands selling food and merchandise from fudge and fried chicken to leather jackets and beaded necklaces. In the cool autumn breeze, hundreds cheered on participants in a hot dog eating contest.
A nearly 2,100-pound pumpkin that had taken the grand prize in the fair’s weigh-off sat in a place of honor behind a glass enclosure.
Congrats to the 2021 All New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off…. Alex Noel of Abington, CT - 2,092lbs pic.twitter.com/4PnhMhMP90— Topsfield Fair (@TopsfieldFair) October 1, 2021
Andrew Sinkewicz, a Georgetown native who has frequented the fair for two decades, said he had never seen one so big.
“In the last decade,” Sinkewicz said, “they’ve clearly figured something out.”
Outdoors, most fairgoers chose not to wear masks. But a majority pulled masks over their noses in enclosed areas like the arena, cattle barn, and fruit and vegetable display. Several vendors working at food trucks and booths outside were without face coverings.
Brooke Finan, 33, of Boston, who attended the fair with her boyfriend, said the fair had set reasonable mask restrictions.
“I think it’s a good job of figuring out where masks are needed — and where taking them off is OK,” she said.
In Salem, resident Lauren Goldman expressed concern over the size of the crowds in her community Saturday. But she said she felt secure knowing many people have been vaccinated.
“There’s a reason Oct. 2 looks like Oct. 22 here,” said Goldman, a 65-year-old insurance agent. “People missed this.”
Jay Valentino, 35, and Orsola Almodovar, 34, who drove four hours from Staten Island to kick off the Halloween season, were mindful of COVID-19 as they toured Salem with their two 3-year-old daughters.
Almost all the activities on their Saturday itinerary took place outdoors, including visits to locations featured in the family movie “Hocus Pocus.” Their daughters were in the spirit of things, dressed in matching pointed hats and capes.
“Because of COVID, it’s not worth it to try going inside,” Almodovar said.
Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_. John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.