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6 feet from North Pole

Santa visits are now about temperatures and symptoms

Santa Claus is coming to the mall — just don’t try to sit on his lap.

Despite the pandemic — and the fact that Santa’s age and weight put him at high risk for severe illness from the coronavirus — mall owners are going ahead with plans to bring him back this year.

But they are doing all they can to keep the jolly old man safe, including banning kids from sitting on his knee, no matter if they’ve been naughty or nice.

Kids instead will tell Santa what they want for Christmas from 6 feet away, and sometimes from behind a sheet of acrylic glass. Santa and his visitors may need to wear a face mask, even while posing for photos. And some malls will put faux gift boxes and other decorations in front of St. Nick to block kids from charging toward him.

Other safety measures include online reservations to cut down on lines, workers wiping down holiday-decorated sets and hand sanitizer aplenty. Santa’s hours also are getting cut to give him a break from crowds.

SOUTHERN PARK

AND EASTWOOD MALLS

The holidays will look a bit different, too, at the two major malls in the Mahoning Valley.

Joe Bell, director of corporate communications for the Cafaro Company, owner / operator of the Eastwood Mall in Niles, said EDI Imaging, the company that takes photos of Santa and children at the mall, will use what’s called the “Santa Safety Guard,” an acrylic shield made by Bella Design Group.

If properly installed, the device is not visible in photos. It will be cleaned after every visit.

A great deal of thought went into “preserving the Christmas experience” for children and calming fears of parents during the viral outbreak, Bell said.

“By making a few accommodations, like the Santa Shield, we’re able to balance those two concerns,” Bell said.

Reservations are recommended at www.ediimag ing.com/xmas or in-person at the mall. If there is no one scheduled at that time, “they will be able to just walk in and have their child visit with the big guy,” Bell said.

Santa arrived at the mall Saturday.

At the Southern Park Mall in Boardman, Santa arrives Friday.

Like at Eastwood, guests visiting Santa at Southern Park will not be allowed to sit on Santa’s lap, and there will be an acrylic divider.

“Guests will have the opportunity to engage in conversation and a take a photo with Santa while maintaining physical distance,” said Christina Cleary, marketing director for Southern Park.

Reservations are recommended. Walk-up visits will be available if space allows.

OTHER PLANS

Macy’s canceled its in-person visits this year, saying it couldn’t provide a safe environment for the more than 250,000 people that show up to see Kriss Kringle at its New York flagship store.

But malls, which have struggled to attract shoppers for years, are not willing to kill a holiday tradition that is one of their biggest ways to lure people during the all-important holiday shopping season.

“You have to give them a reason to come or they’ll stay home and shop online,” said Michael Brown, who oversees the retail team at consulting firm Kearney.

More than 10 million U.S. households visited Santa in a mall or store last year, according to GlobalData Retail’s managing director Neil Saunders. Nearly 73 percent of them also spent money at nearby restaurants or stores, he said.

“Santa is the magnet that attracts people to malls and without that attraction, malls will struggle more to generate foot traffic,” said Saunders.

Mall operator CBL, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this month, plans to bring Santa to nearly 60 malls at the end of November, about three weeks later than last year. The company decided against an acrylic barrier because it didn’t look right in photos. But Santa will be socially distanced and wear a face mask. He may also put on a plastic shield to protect his face.

“We’re doing everything possible so that he stays healthy,” said Mary Lynn Morse, CBL’s marketing vice president.

Mall owner Brookfield started planning in-person Santa visits at 130 of its shopping centers in April, opting for sleighs and gift boxes where visitors can sit away from Santa. At one of its malls, The SoNo Collection in Norwalk, Connecticut, a round piece of plexiglass will be placed in front of Santa so it looks like he’s inside a snow globe.

But the precautions may not be enough to convince some shoppers.

“It just seems like such a bad idea, just being in a mall,” said Emma Wallace of Alexandria, Virginia, who decided against taking her toddler to his first visit with Santa this year.

“We’re just so sad,” she said. “We were really looking forward to that picture that seems like every parent has, where they’re sort of terrified or just bemused by the whole Santa thing.”

Malls realize many people may stay home. Cherry Hill Programs, which will bring Santa to more than 700 malls, is also offering Zoom calls with him for the first time in its 60-year history. And Brookfield teamed up with virtual Santa company JingleRing, giving people a way to chat with Santa from home.

SANTA

Ed Taylor, a Santa who typically spends several months in Los Angeles filming TV spots and making mall appearances, will stay at home in southern Oregon this year.

“When you think about the high-risk profile for COVID, you’re kind of drawing a picture of Santa,” Taylor said.

He’ll be doing video calls with families and has been holding online classes to get other Santas camera-ready. Meeting kids virtually means getting them to speak up more, as the calls usually run seven minutes — about twice as long as mall visits, where the main objective is to snap a good picture.

Going online gives Santa a chance to experiment with his attire. Some may ditch the formal red suit for vests and rolled up sleeves, as Santa is presumably calling from the North Pole and running a toy workshop full of busy elves.

“Up at home, we’re working,” said Taylor. “We have presents to make. We’ve got reindeer to feed.”

But there’s some parts of Santa’s look that can’t change. JingleRing, which has signed up more than 400 Santas, held online training sessions on how to use at-home bleaching kits to transform gray hair and beards into Santa’s snow white hue. They were also advised to buy teeth whitening strips.

“Santa can’t have smoker’s teeth,” said Walt Geer, who co-founded JingleRing this year after realizing people may need a new way to meet Santa.

news@tribtday.com

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