St. Louis Haunted Houses Have Revamped For The Pandemic, But Can They Survive 2020?
It should have been a record year for Larry Kirchner and his local haunted house empire.
There are five weekends in October this year, and, best of all, Halloween 2020 lands on a Saturday night. It's the ideal calendar.
Instead, Kirchner said he doesn't know if his businesses, which include the Darkness, Creepyworld and the Lemp Brewery Haunted House, will survive the year. He and other haunted attraction operators have spent thousands of dollars on cleaning supplies and countless hours modifying spaces to adhere to new health guidelines.
While operators hold their breath to see if business picks up, public health officials in the region are issuing warnings that such attractions pose high risks for spreading the coronavirus.
Missouri officials have allowed haunted houses to reopen this season, but the Illinois Department of Public Health banned indoor haunted houses entirely.
Kirchner reopened the Darkness in St. Louis and Creepyworld in Fenton last weekend with reduced capacity and hours. He pushed back the opening of those attractions by two weeks to revamp the attractions to be safer for guests. He decided to not open the Lemp Brewery Haunted House in St. Louis at all this season.
Wearing masks will be required at both the Darkness and Creepyworld, even though the latter is in Jefferson County, which has no mask mandate. The decision to require masks has provoked the ire of fans of Creepyworld.
“People [are] sending me the most vile emails saying that we're un-American for making them wear a mask, and they'll never come back ever again,” he said.
Reopening his haunted houses has become divisive in a time when Democrats and Republicans often have opposing opinions about how to handle the pandemic, but Kirchner said he had no choice.
“If we don't open this year, that means we won't be open ever again,” he said of the 27-year-old, family-owned business. Kirchner said he is worried about paying rent, workers' compensation and property taxes.
To cut costs, Kirchner hired fewer seasonal workers and replaced actors with air cannons to scare guests. At the Darkness, he cut the workforce by 30% and is prohibiting actors from roaming the floors.
Actors at the Darkness and Creepyworld this year also are not allowed to wear makeup, because actors often share the same supplies and have swapped their Halloween masks for coronavirus face coverings.
Other new changes include removing curtains that separate scenes, lengthening line cues, adding hand- washing stations and increasing the police presence.
“Haunted houses are doing more to operate safely than any Walmart ever could,” he said.
Despite Kirchner’s efforts, health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still advise people to avoid haunted houses, especially indoor ones.
“People are known to be crowded together and engage in screaming and other activities while moving through the haunted house course,” said Dr. Fred Echols, St. Louis Health Department director.
Echols said outdoor attractions, such as Creepyworld and Six Flags Hallowfest in Eureka, pose less of a risk because they allow for better air ventilation and social distancing.
Six Flags Hallowfest is open only on weekends. Reservations are required, and masks must be worn. The theme park also decided to hire fewer actors and cut indoor haunted houses this season.
Despite the pandemic, Americans are still expected to spend over $8 billion this Halloween, according to the National Retail Federation.
While many haunted houses are struggling, Brookdale Farms owner Jerry Kirk said business is booming. He said his sales have increased more than 60%. The farm in Eureka operates the largest corn maze in the region, as well as haunted hayrides.
Since the haunted attractions are outside, Kirk said he did not alter his operations in any drastic way or reduce capacity. Brookdale Farms does not require guests wear masks.
“The farm here is 320 acres. So there's plenty of room for social distancing,” Kirk said.
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