ROCK ISLAND, Ill — Next weekend will mark the opening of the 2020 haunted house season. Here in the Quad Cities, the participating houses say they're prepared to provide a little escapism, while still keeping customers and crews healthy.
Houses that are open this year had to be cleared by both county and state officials, and must adhere to several health and safety guidelines.
Still, owners of several local houses say the excitement surrounding this year's haunt is higher than ever.
At Shock House in Rock Island, Producer Kristofer Swinburn says everyone must wear a mask - even the actors underneath their costumes. Additionally, the queue will be socially distanced, with groups of five or less standing at poles spaced over six feet apart. The wait time between groups will also be doubled, to about a minute.
"We're offering online ticketing," he said. "We've reduced how many people can be inside, and with the online tickets there's an option to wait in your car until we text you that it's your turn to come in."
Information is also gathered from every customer in case contact tracing is needed.
"We’re gonna record the time and date you were here. So that, in the event that we do get contacted by the health department, we can come back and say ‘these are the people that were here during this hour, at that particular time,'" said Swinburn.
Those who fill out an online ticket will already have their information entered. Patrons who pay at the door will have to write down their name and phone number, which will then be stamped with the date and time.
While Swinburn says a few attractions had to be rethought this year in order to keep surfaces sanitized (including a hallway of inflated tubes that patrons would have to squeeze through), the scares will still be there.
"In our case we have a huge building, we have lots of space, we have cross-flow ventilation, we have doors open, people are spread out, we have a group of people sanitizing, people cleaning up…everything that's required and a little bit more," said Swinburn.
To help keep crews healthy, he says the size of the cast lounge was increased, actors will only work with the same groups, and extra members were brought on to reduce potential exposure time.
All of this was important to Swinburn, who says he decided to go through with the haunt back in June. His crew needs to start setting up in early August, so he says he took the summer to watch larger houses, that open months before Halloween, to take notes on the new safety regulations.
A few blocks away, Skellington Manor is implementing many of the same strategies. Owner Penni Steen and her husband Michael say this season has been a long one coming.
"At the beginning we were praying that things would be over with by now. But it's not, so we've had to make several adjustments to be open," said Steen. "Before we even made the announcement we had people contacting us to see if we'd be open."
At Skellington, actors will be divided into small pods. Those groups will only take breaks with and interact amongst each other. And Steen says many of those in a group have already been quarantining together or have been in the same environment for performances. Cutouts were created within Skellington to allow actors to move about sets with limited customer contact.
"That was a decision we made early on and we talked with all of our actors before we even opened to see if they were interested in this system," she said.
During the haunt, workers will regularly sanitize high-touch areas, including hand rails. Masks will be required for everyone. And the wait time between groups will be increased.
"We are doing everything we can to provide a safe, sanitized environment," said Steen.
But she says the real key will be customer compliance.
"If you get onto a conveyor belt, once you start, you're gonna continue on your path until you finish," she said.
Customers are asked to keep moving, to avoid backups and potential run-ins with groups behind them. To Steen, it's a two-way agreement between the house and the patrons who come to visit.
"It's gonna be kind of a controlled environment with a lot of fun and scare on the way."
And both houses say this year was always going to be an important one - as there's more weekends during October than there typically would be. Swinburn hopes the longer season will attract more customers in the earlier weeks, to help cut down on potential crowds at the end.
"My gut tells me we're probably going to have the same size crowds as we normally would," he remarked. "I hope we have it a little more spread out just to make it safer, but we'll see what happens. Coming here, you get to get scared, you get to walk out of here, and have a good night."
Steen agreed, adding that "folks are just excited to do something that kind of suspends their, you know, daily belief system that we’re living with under these times, to something that’s a little more fun and entertaining."