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For Salem’s ghosts and witches, goblins and ghouls, vaccinations are the most coveted treats

‘We weren’t afraid. We were careful.’

Visitors from Philadelphia got all dressed up to have their photograph taken at Witch Pix Costume Studio in Salem. From left: Jennifer Veasey (mother to Abbey and Emily), Olivia Opiela, Abbey Veasey, Emily Veasey, and Michelle Iacovelli (mother to Olivia).David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

SALEM — There are witches with warts, some of them carrying old-fashioned brooms. Pitch-forked devils wear dark-red outfits and wide smiles.

The angels, God bless ‘em, are dressed dazzlingly in white.

A waiter, disguised as a spotted black-and-white cow, brings you not a cold glass of milk but, blessedly, a frosted mug of foam-topped beer.

And, if you look closely at the motley crowds here in downtown Salem — a human kaleidoscope of things that go bump in the night — you will see princesses and pirates, ghosts and ghouls.

And something else: blessed relief.

“We’re all vaccinated and we’re careful,” Jennifer Veasey, 50, a homemaker and mother of three from Philadelphia, told me the other day here under a warm October sky. “We weren’t afraid. We were careful. COVID wasn’t prohibiting us.”

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The witches are out in Salem.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Those collective exhales you’re hearing are coming from City Hall, from scores of downtown merchants, and from Salem’s tourism officials who remember the dark days of a year ago when businesses were restricting occupancy to 40 percent of capacity.

Those were frightening days of mounting infection rates and death counts, a season that would scare the bejesus out of the most seasoned public official or veteran downtown shopkeeper.

In other words: Boo!

Those people are now finally exhaling as Salem, the Witch City, prepares for another Halloween that — compared to a year ago — is destined to be more treat than trick.

“It’s a 180 from last year,” Mayor Kim Driscoll told me the other day here in her City Hall office. “Last year was pins and needles. We didn’t even have a vaccine. You didn’t even want to stand next to anybody. Curfews were put in place.

“Every sign from the New York border to Salem said, ‘Salem is closed.’ This year, it’s a complete difference. We have people here. We think we can gather safely. We have strong precautions in place to allow Salem to be safe, open, and strong.”

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Alex Ko, left, from Texas, with her friend Ashley Medeiros, from Rhode Island, walk around in costume on Essex Street in Salem.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Those are encouraging words for Halloween revelers who are trying to shake off the malaise of the pandemic, trying to shift from watching a world from behind their masks, to embracing life now tempered by caution and measured in safe distances.

“We’re going to party like it’s 1692,” Megan Hall, a 30-year-old transplant nurse from New York City, told me as she explored Salem’s downtown with a group of her nursing colleagues. “We’re going to do this and then we’re going to get our tarot cards read. And we have reservations at the rooftop bar.”

Hall was not far from Wynott Wands, where owner Tim Maguire has set up shop now for 17 years, an enterprise he started after operating the Boston Tea Party Museum in Boston.

“I was the general manager there when we got struck by lightning and it burned down,” Maguire said of his old work in Boston. “And then, two weeks later, 9/11 hit. So as far as tourism goes, I’ve been through the perfect storm.

“To me, like anything else in tourism, it was a challenge for how to do things safely and how to survive to get where we are now.”

Survival.

It’s not something that’s always been synonymous with this city since the bad ol’ days of the 17th century when some 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft and about 20 were executed for doing so.

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Witch trials. Public hangings. All of it repackaged into a thriving commercial operation. Until this. Medical bulletins. COVID counts. Something else to scare the bejesus out of you.

A healthy chunk of Salem’s annual tourism dollars flow into the city during the Halloween season. That means some $131 million in visitor spending, according to the latest figures available.

A year ago, events were canceled. Businesses were operating at 40 percent of capacity. And, still, thousands came.

Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem stands next to the Bewitched sculpture at Lappin Park in Salem. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“People were here but they couldn’t get into anything,” Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, told me. “So, people were waiting. There were no events. There were very few things for people to do so they would wait two hours to get into a retail store.”

Now, as the pandemic loosens its grip, they’re back. And Fox is urging people to jump on the train and not behind the wheel of their cars.

“Trains don’t get stuck in traffic,” Fox said. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand. We have people who couldn’t come last year or didn’t come last year who are planning to be here this year.”

She has advice for the holiday revelers approaching town: Be nice.

“Yes, be kind,” she said. “There’s a higher level of expectation and entitlement right now. And I think it’s because of the pent-up demand. A lot of businesses are working with short staffs because not everybody has come back to work for a variety of reasons.

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“So just understand that. And be patient. There are long lines and long waits. And be nice once you get into places.”

Indeed, there were long lines and lots of package-toting tourists strolling the streets of sun-splashed Salem the other day.

Tourists wore capes and crowns. Magic wands were on sale, dangling behind a merchant’s plate-glass window.

Kellie Walter from Chicago wears a mandatory mask while shopping for vintage clothing and a Halloween dress at Modern Millie in Salem.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

You could buy candles of absinthe and black fig. There were devil’s tails and sorcerer capes

All of it prompted smiles from the mayor’s office, where Driscoll — who first came here to play basketball at Salem State University — is allowing herself to exhale as visitor volume to her city rebounds from the dark days of the pandemic.

“Last weekend, we saw huge numbers of people here,” she said. “Every hotel room was full. Not just in Salem but in the entire 10-, 15-mile radius around us. And overwhelmingly so far — knock on wood — the crowds have been great.

“We haven’t had a problem managing people. We haven’t had a lot of arrests. We don’t have huge public safety issues to far. That always is something we need to be mindful of, but it’s a well-behaved, family-friendly crowd, just happy to get together and get out. And they’re shopping. Everyone’s got a bag in their hands.”

The mayor smiled the smile of a public official finally able to exhale after watching the city’s unemployment rate skyrocket from 3 percent to 18 percent.

“Most of our businesses are small, independent, mom-and-pops,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of chains here. And they did an amazing work pivoting.”

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Pivoting. And surviving. And, now, ready to celebrate with all those ghosts and goblins, those witches and those devils parading through the streets.

And crowding shops like Hope Hitchcock’s.

“Hitchcock,” she told me by way of introduction. “Like Alfred. I own Witch Pix.”

Witch Pix is a premium costume photography studio where customers can cook at a cauldron or gaze into the future rubbing a vintage crystal ball.

“I think people are happy to be here,” she told me inside her bustling shop the other day. “They are stomping down the door to get out and have some fun. Absolutely. We have families traveling in clusters and we do a lot of multi-generations. Mom and daughter pictures left and right.”

Just before I arrived her photographers captured faux-spooky images of a grandmother, her two daughters, and two granddaughters.

When I asked one customer what she was dressed as, she paused — considered casting a punitive spell my way — and, instead told me:

“Witches! We’re all witches!”



Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.