People going to large indoor Halloween events in Salem, Massachusetts, will have to test negative for COVID-19.
The Board of Health voted Friday to require anyone attending indoor festivities where there are more than 100 people, regardless of vaccine status, to provide a negative test. The policy will be in effect from Oct. 1 through Nov. 1.
The huge crowds that typically flock to Salem every Halloween season are expected to be back in force this year, but city officials are worried that big indoor parties like costume balls could become problematic.
"What's going to happen in October where we're going to have these large indoor events that we could be at risk of having a superspreader event?" said Dr. Jeremy Schiller, chair of the Salem Board of Health.
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City officials say they don't want any regrets about allowing these events to take place after they were canceled last year.
"I support it," Cassidy Peters, who plans on attending big Halloween gatherings in Salem, said of the policy. "I think it would make me feel a lot safer at those events."
"We are looking at putting in place some additional protections for the large balls and festivals and activities that take place indoors during October that typically attract a lot of out-of state-guests," Mayor Kim Driscoll said earlier, "and also typically where you’re taking your mask off if you’re eating or drinking and mingling with folks."
Driscoll emphasized that the city's indoor mask mandate won't help stop COVID transmission while people are eating and drinking for a long duration.
"So there would be a requirement you would be tested within a certain timeframe before the event in order to gain entry," the mayor said.
Ticket holders will need a negative test taken within 72 hours of the event they're attending.
The city says to help facilitate testing, it'll work on providing a central location in downtown Salem where people can be tested for free, and with rapid results that take just 15 minutes.
"My frustration is that they waited two weeks before October to discuss,”" said Kay Lynch, who runs the Salem Horror Fest every October.
Lynch says vaccination, which the movie festival will require, along with masking, should be enough.
"We had been planning the last three months to enforce certain policies that we now have to go back to our customers and tell everyone, 'Alright, well, we're gonna need a negative test,'" said Lynch.
Driscoll called it an "entirely reasonable precaution" in a Facebook post Thursday, pointing to the highly contagious delta variant and the large number of out-of-state visitors the city has historically received.
With thousands expected to visit the Witch City next month, some tourists said ahead of the meeting that testing makes sense to them.
Katie Smigielski, who's visiting from Chicago, said, "I mean I think they should require them, or at least proof of a vaccine."
"I think it makes sense, I mean that's kind of what they're doing in Chicago to keep the events going," said Kyle Lindstrom, also visiting from Chicago.
Most residents agreed they feel safer knowing there are extra efforts to detect COVID cases before they spread.
Aaron Ross called it "a really smart choice," while Filipe Zamborlini said, "Come visit us, be vaccinated. If you're not vaccinated, get tested."
Other residents thought it was too restrictive.
Lifelong Salem resident John Latoszek said, "It's a little too far on mandating people to have to do certain things, there shouldn't be a contingency on families coming, people coming."
Salem draws about half a million people each year during the Halloween season for large events like haunted houses, a parade, parties and more. The annual Haunted Happenings celebrations were dramatically scaled back last year, but are back on for 2021.
Driscoll said Salem is talking to a vendor, Curative, about setting up a central testing site downtown that would offer free, 15-minute rapid tests for people headed to large, ticketed, indoor events, as well as the public. Curative ran some of Massachusetts' mass vaccination sites.
The COVID testing proposal was developed over the last month and discussed with organizers of large events, Driscoll said. The city would pay for the testing with COVID relief funding.
Salem has a 2% COVID positivity rate -- slightly below the state's recent average -- and low hospitalization numbers, Driscoll said, but metrics are rising both among unvaccinated and vaccinated people. City officials believe that's because of the delta variant, which is more infectious than previous COVID variants.
"Ensuring that those attending events have a recent negative COVID test will help limit potential spread associated with these well attended events – all of which were canceled last year," Driscoll wrote on Facebook.