GRANDVILLE, Mich. — Santa is preparing for his first Christmas during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You carry a lot of your own Santa-tizer with you and you use that often,” Santa joked at a mall in Michigan.
At the Woodland Mall in Kentwood and Cabela’s in Grandville, a piece of Plexiglass and face masks will separate Santa from visiting families.
“The one thing I miss the most: I can’t see if they’re smiling or not. And to me, that’s my pay day. If they’re happy and they’re full of joy, I am too, as we all should be,” a pensive Santa said.
Each family must socially distance while they wait in line to see Santa. Everyone must wear a face mask, at least until they’re seated.
“I have to wear a (face) shield. I don’t look quite as good behind the shield as I do without it, but it’ll have to do,” Santa said during a welcoming event at Cabela’s. “It distracts a little bit from the personal contact I can have with the kids, but it’s still nice to be able to see them and talk to them and make them feel special, which is what it’s all about.”
Both Woodland Mall and Cabela’s are requiring families to register online for time with Santa, hoping to see shorter lines and smaller crowds. Employees at both places will sanitize the photo area between each group of visitors.
“As you can imagine, waiting in line for two hours, sometimes people get a little cranky, especially when they’re like 2 years old. So this I think will work out better,” Santa said.
At Cabela’s, a trip to Santa’s Wonderland comes with a temperature check.
“Really Cabela’s is doing that more to keep me safe and I appreciate that. But it also — the one thing we don’t want to do is be responsible for spreading this, so they’ve taken every precaution,” Santa said. “We want to make sure everybody leaves as healthy as they came in.”
While it would be easy to scrap the Christmastime tradition, Cabela’s general manager John Woniewski says in the face of plenty of other cancellations this year, customers wanted to keep it going.
“It’s important to still keep some tradition and some familiarity in the times that we’re in. And if we’re able to do it in a safe and responsible manner, it’s still a great way to make great memories, great family memories and keep those traditions while still being safe,” Woniewski said.
Santa says while changes are necessary, they’re tough because he’d “rather receive a hug than a paycheck.”
“It tugs on our hearts … because we can’t have that child come running up from 20 feet and jump into our arms or give them a big hug when they want to hug,” he said. “It’s heavy on everybody’s heart that we can’t hug the kids … even a high five is something that’s going to be missed,” he added.
‘WE HAVE TARGETS ON OUR BACK’
The president of the Michigan Association of Professional Santas says “there’s been a lot of concern” among the other Santas he has helping him out in other places.
“They’ll call me and ask me what to do and I want to tell them to be safe and do whatever it is that they’re comfortable doing,” he said.
Several members of MAPS are sitting out this year, opting to put on the red suit only for close friends and family.
“I don’t blame these guys for not wanting to do something this year, because it literally could be a death sentence. I mean, if you really want to get down to the serious side of this, we know we’re taking risks to bring these kids joy,” the president of MAPS said.
“Our demographic is elderly, and we all have targets on our back. And a lot of the Santas are suffering with diabetes and things like that, that just — they just don’t want to risk getting COVID and I’m 100% OK with that. If they’re not comfortable doing it, they shouldn’t do it,” he added.
Some families have also opted out of home visits from Santa.
“I think most of them — these are people that I’ve been seeing for years and years — are more concerned with me than they are them,” Santa said.
But he’s resolute in keeping the Christmas spirit alive.
“We’re not going to skip Christmas. We lost the Fourth of July this year. We’ve lost other wonderful holidays this season because of COVID, I’m sorry to say. But Santa is not going to let COVID beat us. We’re going to adapt and do it. We need to see the kids,” he said. “We can do that behind a barrier, we can do that behind the mask. We just have to work harder at it.”
CREATING A SAFE AND ‘MAGICAL ENVIRONMENT’
Some of the 325 members of MAPS began weekly online meetings in July to share what they knew about COVID-19 and brainstorm ways to handle the pandemic.
“Even the simple things [like] gloves. Instead of wearing cotton gloves, we’ve talked about wearing leather gloves, because we can sanitize the leather. The cotton would be a problem. So just those small nuances to create a magical environment,” Santa explained.
Santa is showing off his creativity in the Newaygo area by transforming his plexiglass enclosure into a post office, complete with a slot for children to slide Santa their letters.
“As the child sees it, they’re used to a barrier at the post office. So it’s a familiar barrier and it doesn’t make them scared or worried,” Santa explained.
BOOM IN VIRTUAL VISITS
This year, many visits with the big man are moving online, allowing Santa to share the magic of Christmas with kids as far away as the United Kingdom.
“Last year, I knew three Santas that were doing virtual. This year, I know about 40,” Santa said.
From operating Zoom and FaceTime to using green screens and professional lighting, teaching a 366-year-old man relatively new technology has been challenging at times.
“One of the challenges is asking a Santa, ‘Well, tell me how much bandwidth you have.’ And (they say) ‘Well, I like listening to a lot of different types of bands, which band do you want?’ So that’s been a challenge,” said a MAPS member.
“When they get it, oh my gosh. It’s just like visiting with a child their eyes twinkle and (they’re) going, ‘Oh, I get to visit. And I’m so excited,’” he added.
Santa said virtual visits this year are “off the chart.” One MAPS member went from a couple parties and four virtual visits last year to eight parties and hundreds of virtual meetings planned now until Christmas.
During each visit, Santa tells stories, sings with the group, shares magical moments and speaks with each child “just like if we were in person.”
“One of the advantages of having a virtual (visit) is I’m spending now five to 10 minutes with a child,” explained Santa. “So I can interact much more than I did in the past by coming virtually, (and) I didn’t have to worry about the line.”
‘WE WILL GET THROUGH THIS’
Some of Santa’s parades have been scrapped this year, including the Grand Rapids Jaycees Santa Parade. The event put on by the Wyoming-Kentwood Chamber of Commerce will be a reverse parade, with floats and entries remaining stationary and visitors making the trek, and Lowell’s Santa Parade is drive-thru style. In Reed City, the 2020 Evergreen Festival procession will be stretched out to allow for social distancing, according to Santa.
“We know that this year in particular is one that we have to be particularly careful in, or we may never get to do this again. But is it going to stop us? Not a prayer. We’re going to do what we can to bring these kids joy, and we’re going to do whatever it takes,” Santa said.
“We will get through this and we will come out the other side, still smiling and still happy and jolly,” he added.
“In the red suit community, I believe that the majority of people, myself included, we believe… (it’s) more important this year than any other year to be able to spread that peace on Earth and goodwill towards men,” said another Santa. “Let’s love one another.”