Coronavirus is forcing America’s ‘Halloween towns’ to make scary decisions

In cities with historical ties to All Hallows’ Eve, festivities might take on a new guise this year.

In a pandemic year, cities with deep ties to all things spooky are wrestling with a frightening thought—should they cancel Halloween?

It’s a tricky question for these “Halloween towns,” where “historically you bleed orange the month of October,” says Liz McFarland, president of the nonprofit that organizes Halloween in Anoka, Minnesota, one of the first American cities to celebrate the holiday.

Besides town pride, the candy-filled fest brings much-needed tourism dollars—hundreds of thousands to cities including Salem, Massachusetts, where the notorious 1692 witch trials took place. In smaller towns like Anoka, the holiday “has a big economic impact on the business community,” Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce President Peter Turok writes in an email. While the town of 18,000 doesn’t have the resources to track visitation numbers, Turok says that businesses are usually “teeming with people in a normal Halloween.”

“[This year] is a different story altogether as most of the events usually held are just not going to [happen] or will be held in a different way, which means people won’t be able to gather like they have in the past,” says Turok. “The bottom line is, no events means no people and lost revenue for the merchants.”

Across the United States and around the world, coronavirus cases are rising, and experts predict more infections as temperatures drop and flu season ramps up. Hallmark events including parades, haunted houses, and traditional trick-or-treating fall under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “high-risk” category for spreading COVID-19. Also on the CDC’s no-no list: traveling to rural fall festivals, often located near vulnerable communities. To ensure maximum safety for all, the CDC recommends travelers stay home and observe the holiday through low-risk activities, such as decorating your home and having a virtual costume contest.

(Related: Here’s how to have a safe Halloween.)

With fewer tourists expected to travel this year, many of these cities are observing the signature holiday in a markedly subdued way. They’re downsizing large events, moving some online, and canceling certain festivities altogether. Here’s how five popular Halloween destinations in the U.S. are adjusting to this scarier-than-usual season.

Salem, Massachusetts

In past years, Salem has gone all out for Halloween, making the historic New England town one of the most popular stops for fright-night revelers. Before the pandemic, nearly half a million costumed visitors participated in a month’s worth of “Haunted Happenings,” which included parades and the “Great Salem Pumpkin Walk,” a stroll through town highlighting intricately carved pumpkins.

This year, all city-backed events have been canceled. Attractions, shops, and restaurants—already at limited capacity—require advance tickets and reservations to gain entry. Without such planning, city officials suggest visitors postpone their trips until next year.

On Oct. 21, Mayor Kim Driscoll announced further safety precautions including a mandatory 8 p.m. closure on Oct. 30 and 31 for all downtown businesses. Trains from Boston won’t stop at Salem during certain hours Oct. 30–Nov. 1.

(Related: Witch tourism is lucrative. It also obscures a tragic history.)

Statewide, masks are required in indoor and outdoor areas when it isn’t possible to maintain six feet of distance. Visitors from places not on Massachusetts’s lower-risk state list must quarantine for 14 days or produce a negative COVID-19 test taken up to 72 hours of arrival.

Sleepy Hollow, New York

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving’s 1820 gothic short story, cemented this leafy village’s place as a Halloween hot spot.

The book’s popularity has brought hundreds of thousands of fans to the suburb for spine-tingling action connected to the story’s famous characters: Ichabod Crane and his pumpkin-fireball-wielding nemesis, the Headless Horseman.

Of about 37 scheduled activities and events, more than 20 have been canceled. No longer happening: the Tarrytown parade, performances based on the book and enacted in the churchyard, and autumnal parties including Oktoberfest and the “Village of Sleepy Hollow Haunted Hayride and Block Party.”

Some key programs will go on with restrictions such as limited capacity, timed entry, social distancing, and advanced booking. The signature “Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze,” featuring 7,000 hand-carved pumpkins on the grounds of an 18th-century manor, will reduce capacity by “over two-thirds,” says Rob Schweitzer, vice president of communications and commerce for Historic Hudson Valley. Visitors must reserve timed-entry tickets and follow one-way paths through the display.

New York state has issued a coronavirus travel advisory requiring travelers from areas with “significant rates” (positivity rates of more than 10 per 100,000 in a seven-day average) of COVID-19 transmission to quarantine for 14 days from the time of their last contact. Face masks are required on public transportation and in for-hire vehicles (Uber and Lyft), as well as in places where it isn’t possible to maintain six feet of distance.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Mardi Gras may be New Orleans’s biggest tourism draw, but Halloween comes in at a close second, bringing crowds comparable in size to the first big weekend of Mardi Gras. With its many haunted hotels, history of the occult, famous cemeteries, and featured roles in freaky films like Interview With a Vampire, the Crescent City consistently ranks high as one of the creepiest places in America.

“You just get a sense that this city has so many centuries of that history, and you feel the past in your bones as you’re walking through,” says Mark Romig, vice president and chief marketing officer of New Orleans & Company, the city’s tourism marketing arm.

Unlike other Halloween towns, New Orleans doesn’t have a city-backed Halloween campaign. The few big events the city normally hosts have been canceled. Among the scuttled events are the Krewe of Boo parade, famous for its fantastical costumes, and the Voodoo Music + Arts Festival, known for headliners who in the past have included Ozzy Osbourne and KISS.

Independent operators that offer fright-night entertainment, such as ghost tours, are continuing with reduced capacity and mask requirements; some are going virtual. New this year: a Halloween-themed site inside Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World float workshop, included with admission to the popular attraction. Visitors are required to maintain six feet of distance and wear masks while exploring the warehouse, which shows how floats are made and decorated.

(Related: Here are the most haunted places in the U.S.)

Louisiana is presently in its Phase 3 reopening stage, in which masks and six feet of social distance are required everywhere. The state does not require self-quarantine or proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

Anoka, Minnesota

Located 20 miles north of Minneapolis, along the banks of the Rum River, Anoka first celebrated Halloween with a parade in 1920 to prevent kids from playing pranks around town.

Over time, one parade grew to three parades and added events that, before the pandemic, drew 60,000 visitors annually. For this year’s centennial, planners say festivities will adhere to the Minnesota Department of Health safety guidelines, which mandate the wearing of masks in indoor spaces and social distancing. Venues are limited to 25 percent capacity, capped at 250 people, who must maintain six feet of distance.

The re-imagined activities include a drive-by “Grande Day in Anoka” parade, with floats set up at locations around the city for people to drive to and view from their cars. Visitors can participate in a drive-in style bingo night, log onto a virtual Halloween gala, and view decorated houses from a safe distance in the annual house-decorating contest. All events require pre-registration.

To date, other than a mask mandate and social distancing, Minnesota does not require travelers to self-quarantine or produce a negative COVID-19 test.

Independence, Kansas

This rural town in southeast Kansas, with a population of fewer than 9,000, held its first Halloween night in 1919 to keep mischievous kids out of trouble. The home of famed writer Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House on the Prairie) and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Inge (Picnic, Bus Stop) is a Halloween destination that draws more than 80,000 visitors to its annual “Neewollah” festival, the biggest in the state.

In accordance with Kansas’s ban on gatherings of 500 or more people, festival organizers have canceled all events, except for the Queen Neelah pageant and the “Medallion Hunt,” a citywide treasure hunt. “We would get a lot of people from out of town, and there’s no way to regulate where they came from or who they’ve been in touch with,” says Janet Demo, head of the festival planning committee, of the difficult decision to cancel events.

Organizers say the pageant will be live-streamed and incorporate temperature checks, face masks, and social distancing. A handful of other spectator-focused events are changing, too. These include a car-caravan version of the “Doo Dah Parade” through downtown, virtual “fun run” races, socially distanced outdoor movie nights, and decorating competitions that can be viewed from a distance.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has issued a travel advisory that requires a 14-day quarantine for anyone who has visited states and countries with infection rates (per 100,000 people) that are three times higher than that of Kansas. As of Oct. 26, the list (updated every two weeks) included North Dakota and Andorra. The quarantine also applies to anyone who has taken a cruise since March 15 or attended a mass gathering of 500 or more people with no social distancing and masks.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer covering outdoor adventure, travel, and sustainability. Her work has appeared in Outside, Climbing, and SELF, among others. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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