'Terror Behind the Walls' suspended, layoffs at Eastern State Penitentiary due to COVID-19

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- The coronavirus pandemic has forced massive layoffs and the suspension of the popular Halloween attraction, Terror Behind the Walls, located at the former Eastern State Penitentiary.

Officials say they have to lay off about 40% of its staff and reduce salaries just to keep the historic site up and running.

"This was the absolute last resort," said President and CEO Sally Elk. "After months of financial losses, and with such uncertainty ahead, we are simply out of options. The strength of this organization has always been its dedicated and ambitious staff. We are heartbroken."

The site was funded primarily on income from Terror Behind the Walls, fundraising events and admission fees. COVID-19 forced a halt to all revenue on March 14.

The annual Halloween event, which goes on for over a month, funds 63% of the operations and maintenance at the iconic former prison that was built in 1822 and became a model for over 300 prisons worldwide. The prison closed in 1971 but caretakers provide year around tours and educational programs.

Officials say they intend to reopen for historic tours sometime in July but still anticipate a huge loss in revenue while COVID-19 restrictions remain in place.

"Preparations for Terror Behind the Walls had been underway for months; however, modifying the haunted attraction to comply with anticipated COVID-19 guidelines would have presented significant operational challenges and financial risk," the organization said in a new release.

Fans looking to tour the site this summer can expect a new audio tour featuring The Big Graph, a 16-foot bar graph depicting the historic rise of U.S. incarceration rates and the deep racial disparities in the U.S. prison population.

Officials say these difficult decisions will help put them into the best position to welcome visitors once the economy bounces back.
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