This October was uniquely situated to be a boon month for America’s popular fall destinations. A rare five-weekend month with two full moons — one of them falling on Halloween — meant the historic witch-trial city of Salem, Mass., was anticipating its busiest high season ever.

But that scenario didn’t account for the global pandemic that has caused many states to limit gatherings and events, like the more than 700 that make up Salem’s month-long Haunted Happenings calendar each October.

“It’s just a really hard year, but for the most part businesses are reacting,” said Kate Fox, Destination Salem executive director. “People are just waiting to see how the fall season turns out, because it’s so important to the economic viability of our community.” During a typical October, the city sees about 500,000 visitors from around the world, according to the tourism board.

Massachusetts was hit hard by the pandemic in the spring, and its reopening phases effectively bar and limit gatherings for the foreseeable future. The state requires visitors from higher-risk states to receive a negative test for the novel coronavirus or quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Because of that and fewer Americans traveling in general, Destination Salem predicts the city will see 50 percent of its normal fall visitor numbers, Fox says.

That realization is one that many popular fall destinations are coming to in 2020. The challenge becomes maintaining safe levels of visitors for communities, which depend simultaneously on the seasonal tourism and avoiding a new outbreak.

“We’re balancing the needs of our community, from the standpoint of safety, with jump-starting the tourism economy,” says Marla Tambellini, deputy director of Explore Asheville in North Carolina.

Asheville is a popular autumn getaway for its lengthy leaf-peeping season in the Blue Ridge Mountains and is just a one-day drive away (or less) for half the U.S. population, according to the tourism board. The city saw 30 percent fewer tourists in July compared to last year.

“One of the things that is creating some interest and demand is spending some time outdoors and being in areas that aren’t quite as congested,” Tambellini says.

Mask orders, emergency grants and widespread cancellations

Widespread mask-wearing and canceling large events are the first lines of defense for both cities this year. Salem’s small businesses were given free personal protective equipment in June from the city’s new Economic Development Recovery and Revitalization Task Force. A coastal New England city that sees crowds in summer as well as fall, Salem went one step further than the state mask mandate by making its downtown and parks mask-required outdoor areas in July.

“People are still coming to Salem, and it’s a little nerve-racking for our residents and for the businesses. It’s sometimes impossible to physically distance in those narrow downtown areas,” Fox says of the outdoor mask order. “It’s just not been practical this summer already.”

While Asheville doesn’t have a state travel ban largely affecting its visitor numbers like Salem does, the city is similarly pushing its state’s mandate on masks to keep residents safe. North Carolina’s mask mandate requires face coverings in public places with few exceptions, and Explore Asheville’s Stay Safe Pledge outlines the guidance in the city’s busy downtown. A Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund recently disbursed $5 million in relief grants to reopening Asheville businesses, which the city says saved 4,800 jobs.

Amanda Coletta, Canada correspondent for The Washington Post, is trying to navigate life in a pandemic while living with her mom, who is immunocompromised. (The Washington Post)

But masks and emergency funds can’t save everything. In early August, Salem canceled a number of fall events: Its biggest, the Oct. 1 Haunted Happenings Grand Parade, was one of the first to go.

Asheville similarly has had to cancel its Oktoberfest and made its 50-year-old Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands virtual. Both events typically draw thousands of visitors. Tambellini says the new focus has been on getting the city’s restaurants, cafes and other small businesses outdoors, and gives credit to the city for opening “parklets” and expanded pedestrian space to provide additional outdoor dining options.

Pivoting to outdoor events and hoping for good weather

The city of Salem warned local businesses in an Aug. 4 “October Advisory” that the state’s reopening requirements would prohibit indoor gatherings of more than 25 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people through the fall. That means the town’s many cultural and educational institutions are extremely limited, with a much anticipated new Peabody Essex Museum exhibit about the Salem Witch Trials offering timed tickets and smaller tours on reduced hours.

But smaller walking tours, like Salem’s psychic fairs and the Halloween night Witches Magic Circle, are examples of outdoor events that will continue as planned with new distancing guidelines in place.

For Asheville, the city hopes that its already mild fall weather will be bolstered by the semi-rare weather event of La Niña occurring in late 2020, the tourism board said. Unfortunately for Salem, La Niña would mean colder temperatures and more precipitation for the northeast.

“We’re all waiting to see what’s next,” Tambellini says. “Nobody has a crystal ball right now.”

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