What frightens Salem? No Halloween

City officials trying to figure out what holiday looks like during a pandemic

Times have changed in Salem, Mass., since the 17th century, when 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft and 20 were executed for it. Today, the city of 43,000 revels in its macabre lore and has turned Halloween into a monthlong celebration where apple cider is consumed by the gallon, potions and herbs promise protection from evil spirits, and countless children and adults roam the streets in search of sugary and spooky delights.

But this year, that will change.

With coronavirus cases spiking around the country, cities, towns, retailers and confectioners are bracing for what could be a substantially more subdued Halloween this year. High-profile events at Disney's theme parks and Knott's Berry Farm have already been canceled, and in places like Salem -- where the holiday accounts for more than 30% of the city's annual tourists -- officials are trying to figure out what Halloween looks like during a pandemic.

"The sales that the businesses generate during October are what carry them through the quiet winter months," said Kate Fox, director of Destination Salem, the city's marketing organization.

"It's just really a catastrophic year from the business perspective," she added, noting that with five weekends in October this year, two full moons and the end of daylight saving time falling during Halloween night, 2020 was "on track to be our biggest year for tourism ever."

Salem released its first covid-adjusted plans for this year's Haunted Happenings events in early August under the assumption that by October, Massachusetts would still be in phase three of its reopening, which prohibits indoor gatherings of more than 25 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people. Days after the city's announcement, Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts tightened restrictions on phase three after a rise in cases.

"I think one of the greatest fears for anyone is becoming a covid hot spot or cluster location, and to some extent we're always prepared for the worst," Fox said.

Still, with the nation's economy already sagging, the potential financial blow of a muted Halloween -- or losing it all together -- could be devastating, especially in places like Salem or Sleepy Hollow in New York that have built an industry on the holiday.

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Jonathan Kruk, a professional storyteller recognized for his "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" performance, doesn't want to see Halloween entirely canceled.

Canceling celebrations, he said, would make the holiday "an even more dark and grimly felt time" because instead of seeking a thrill we know is false, "we'll be kind of sitting at home, you know, frightened by our own panic attack -- the real creeping, insidious virus that never seems to go away."

He added, "It's like a horror film. When you think you've vanquished Freddy Krueger or whatever monstrous form is out there, they pop up and scare you again."

It's not all about spooks and scares, of course: Halloween is big business. Between costumes and decorations and candy -- so much candy -- a survey by the National Retail Federation estimated that American consumers would spend more than $8 billion on Halloween last year.

"Nationally, the retail industry has counted on Halloween as one of its important sales drivers," said David Gulley, an economics professor at Bentley University. "While not at the level of end-of-year holiday or back-to-school shopping, Halloween matters. With far fewer parties and trick-or-treating looking very unlikely, this will be yet another blow to the already beleaguered retail sector."

The National Confectioners Association, a trade group for candy-makers, said that while there was no question that Halloween would be different this year, its leaders believed that consumers were holding onto a deeply "rooted optimism for the Halloween season and plan to come up with safe and creative ways to celebrate."

Christopher Gindlesperger, the association's senior vice president for public affairs and communications, said earlier this summer that the group had teamed up with two pollsters, Morning Consult and the Harris Poll, to dig into anticipation for what he called their Super Bowl.

The Morning Consult poll, conducted in late July, found that 63% of adults believed that people would "find creative, fun and safe ways to celebrate the Halloween season this year," Gindlesperger said, and that an additional 25% were optimistic "but aren't sure what to expect just yet."

The Harris Poll, conducted in mid-June, found that 74% of millennial mothers and other young parents said that Halloween was more important than ever this year, he said.

Maybe it's Halloween at a distance or at home, "but that doesn't mean Halloween is not happening," Gindlesperger said.

Trick-or-treating, the quintessential activity of Halloween, is still on the schedule for Salem.

In Orem, Utah, which one website listed as the best city for trick-or-treating in 2019, Mayor Richard F. Brunst said leaders hadn't discussed what effect the virus would have on this year's festivities. Utah County, home to Orem, has roughly 20% of the state's coronavirus cases, according to a New York Times analysis.

"I don't know if that is what Halloween will look like or not," Brunst said. He suggested the example of drive-by wedding receptions, which have become popular in the city during the pandemic. But the mayor stood firm: "Yes, we will be holding Halloween this year."

Everett Brennan, a 9-year-old from Chicago, is gearing up for a year without the usual festivities. "Part of why I like Halloween is because when we go to school we get to do a whole bunch of super-fun games," he said.

Everett said his perfect Halloween would be "being able to talk with people and be right next to my friends and talk with them and stuff."

But with remote learning, "I'll be missing out on it all," he said, adding, "I'll just be disappointed, I guess."