What will happen to all the mall Santas in 2020?

mall santas coronavirus pandemic
Photo via Michael Pereckas/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The continued necessity of social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has many people looking to the upcoming holiday season with trepidation. Thanksgiving will be much different this year, and as cases and deaths continue to rise in the U.S., it’s looking like Christmas will take a hit as well. Mall Santas, a staple of every Christmas season, may be forced to skip appearances this year in the interest of safety. 

Retailers across the country rely on the holiday season for some of their biggest numbers of the year. Employing a mall Santa as a lure for shopping families has proved immensely effective for decades, but 2020 may prove too dangerous for even this lighthearted tradition. 

Many businesses have been banking on the possibility that COVID-19 would be eradicated in time for the holidays. The virus, which has continued to ravage the U.S. since March, is expected to experience a second wave as winter closes in. That likely means retailers are headed toward a dry season, with most shoppers opting for the safety of online shopping. 

The men playing Santa are typically older, as retailers prefer a genuine beard and belly. In the year of COVID-19, the prospect of exposing men in their 60s and 70s to dozens of children per day is unwise, not to mention the exposure between family groups waiting in line. Many men who find work as Santas likely have pre-existing health problems, which put them at high risk from COVID-19.

The Trump administration had made potential plans to allow the men playing Santa to cut the line for a possible vaccine if they actively promoted it, but that idea was scuttled in late October. “This was our greatest hope for Christmas 2020, and now it looks like it won’t happen,” Rick Erwin, the chairman of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, told the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Santa Claus isn’t in danger of catching or spreading the coronavirus, telling USA Today, “Santa is exempt from this because Santa, of all the good qualities, has a lot of good innate immunity.”

Men who’ve found success as mall Santas can pull in up to $10,000 a season, according to USA Today. Many repeat mall Santas have come to rely on this end-of-year income, and are looking to the upcoming season with anxiety. In a year in which many businesses and individuals are already hurting financially, it is a painful blow. Retailers will feel the pain as well, as the allure of online shopping beats out a potentially dangerous in-person experience, particularly without the draw of a real-life Saint Nick. 

With the pandemic on their minds, career Santas have been seeking out creative solutions for months. They’ve produced several solutions, including plexiglass barriers between children and Santa, Santas staying in sleighs at least six feet away from children, and virtual visits from Kris Kringle. One Santa even proposed a letterbox barrier that children can whisper their wish lists through. 

Thanks to their forward thinking, some Santas may still make appearances this year. Those leaning toward Zoom appearances do so with trepidation, noting the loss of in-person connection. “I’ve thought about doing a virtual visit, but that doesn’t seem personal enough,” Jerry Bianco, a Phoenix Santa, said. “I think it would be hard to explain to a young child, ‘Why can’t I sit in Santa’s lap?’ because that’s just what you do.”

Sources: USA Today, WKBN, Guardian, New York Times

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