Malls will welcome Santa this year
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and yes, he will appear at all three Rochester-area shopping malls this holiday season.
No, you will not be able to sit on his lap.
Instead, you’ll have to tell Old St. Nick what you want for Christmas from 6 feet away — after he’s tested for COVID-19 and quarantines for 14 days.
Those are just two of many steps being taken so visits with Santa can go on in the year of the novel coronavirus.
Wilmorite, which owns Eastview Mall in Victor, The Marketplace Mall in Henrietta and The Mall at Greece Ridge, has been discussing the matter since July, when malls in the Rochester-Finger Lakes region were allowed to reopen following a months-long New York state-ordered shutdown, said Wendy Roche, Eastview's director of marketing and public relations.
At that point in the life-altering pandemic, the company was trying to anticipate what the holiday season would look like. “We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, what do we do about Santa?’” she said.
A call went out to Cherry Hill Programs, the New Jersey-based outfit that for more than 20 years has put on “Santa holiday experiences” at Wilmorite malls.
“Don’t worry, we’ve got this,” was Cherry Hill’s response, Roche said, adding, “They’re on top of things. It’s going to look different, but it’s important that it happens.”
At least one major holiday celebration featuring Santa already has been canceled because of concerns over COVID-19.
In August, organizers of Roc Holiday Village pulled the plug on what would have been the third annual event, which for several weekends at the end of the year transforms downtown’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park into a festive winter market. It stands to reason that other Christmas-themed events with Santa, breakfasts and so on, will be canceled, too.
Roche herself has two young children. “Kids have been through a lot this year, so it was a big deal for us to figure out how to do this in a safe manner,” she said of maintaining Santa’s mall presence. “How do you not give them this?”
One of Wilmorite’s longtime Santa surrogates agrees. “So much has been taken away from children this year,” said Jim Lockwood of Webster. “To take Santa out of their lives at Christmastime, that was heartbreaking to me. Fortunately, Santa will appear this year, and I’m happy about that.”
Before being given a green light to reopen, indoor malls here had to commit to numerous state-mandated measures to prevent the spread of the virus. In addition to having advanced air-filtration systems in place, employees are subject to wellness checks before shifts; workers and shoppers are required to social-distance and wear face masks; mall entrances and some restroom features have been made touchless; hand-sanitizing stations have been installed throughout mall properties; and intense new cleaning and disinfecting procedures are being used.
As reimagined by Cherry Hill, the local malls’ Santa programs will operate under the same sorts of protocols.
“We’re going to keep things as touchless and contactless as possible,” Roche said.
Besides testing Santa for COVID-19 and quarantining him prior to the start of the season, once it begins, he and his support staff will be masked and have their temperatures taken before each shift. Santa’s chair will be placed up higher on the Santa sets than in years past. During visits, kids, also masked, will have to maintain 6 to 8 feet of distance, indicated by decorative physical barriers. At Eastview, for instance, boxes made to look like presents will encircle Santa's chair.
For souvenir pictures, each child will sit on an oversized gift box and look straight ahead while, behind him or her, Santa remains seated. There won’t be an enormous amount of space between those two points, so the photos (which Cherry Hill will sell in packages priced from $39.99 to $49.99) should still convey the illusion of something “warm and cozy,” Roche said.
Also, “We’ll be wiping down the sets between visits,” she said.
If that sounds clinical, Wilmorite could have taken things a step further but opted not to. A Texas-based manufacturing company is marketing what it calls a Santa safeguard. It’s a bench backed with a clear acrylic panel with low sides that's placed directly in front of Santa’s chair. Instead of sitting on Santa’s lap, children sit on the bench and interact with him from behind the panel, which resembles an upended tray. When visits end, kids face forward for keepsake photos with Santa.
“It’s not a notion we loved, because it felt very cold,” Roche said. “Putting Santa behind an acrylic box seemed strange to us.”
Also new in the year of the pandemic: an online reservation system for Santa visits, WhereIsSanta.com. Parents will be strongly encouraged to use it starting in mid-October rather than just show up with their children to see Santa.
“That will keep the lines down,” Roche said, and, by extension, the crowds. A $4.95 fee per reservation will be charged.
Janice Sherman, Wilmorite's director of marketing and public relations, declined to share the particulars of the company's contract with Cherry Hill, other than to describe the company as a seasonal mall tenant. "The details of our agreements with any of our tenants are not public," she wrote in an email. Also unknown is what the financial consequences might have been had Santa not been able to appear at the malls this holiday season.
But Wilmorite's philosophy is that "seeing Santa should not cost money," Roche said. "It's a holiday tradition and has always been an amenity of the mall." So workers will accommodate walk-ups when they can do so safely, and each day during the first and final hours of Santa visits, people will be able to see him without a paid reservation.
However, there may be an advantage to booking an appointment: Because of the coronavirus crisis, the window for Santa visits will be smaller this year. He’ll arrive at Eastview, Marketplace and Greece Ridge on Friday, Dec. 4, instead of in mid-November. He’ll be on duty from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on his last day, Thursday, Dec. 24.
And when he shows up, it will be without fanfare. Traditionally, the malls herald the arrival of Santa with parades around the properties. The festivities, featuring marching bands and more, draw thousands of people.
They’ve always been “wonderful, fun events,” Roche said. “But we can’t do that safely this year. We just can’t do things that encourage large crowds.”
All in all, “a very solid plan (is) in place as to how to make this as magical as possible for the customer and as safe as possible,” she said.
Parents who still feel uncomfortable taking their kids to a mall to see Santa in person will be able to access Cherry Hill’s new virtual Santa experience at CreateHolidayMagic.com. The full site (which will be linked from the Wilmorite site) should be up and running by mid-October, but people can go there now to sign up for status updates.
Virtual Santa packages will range from basic ($9.99) to “premium, all-inclusive” ($99 to $149), according to Matt Windt, Cherry Hill’s chief marketing officer.
However, parents aren’t the only ones who might not want to risk exposing their children and themselves to the virus in the coming months.
Stephen Arnold, president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, said because of COVID-19 fears, about a quarter of the professional fraternal organization’s 2,300 members will not appear as Santa this year.
He noted that fewer than 100 of the group’s members are younger than 50, most are older than 60 and many retired from their full-time occupations for health reasons. “A lot of us have diabetes,” he said. “Most of us are obese, and many of us have heart conditions. We are just old people. We fit all the categories of ‘You’d better be careful.’”
Arnold, a Memphis resident who turns 70 in October, actually has booked some holiday appearances.
“I can’t stop being Santa and stop bringing that kind of joy to people,” he said.
But all of the events will put distance between him and the public. In one case, he’ll officiate a tree-lighting ceremony from the safety of a snow globe.
For his part, Real Bearded Santas member Lockwood expressed confidence in the strategy Wilmorite will use. Yes, he’s in his 70s and therefore in a coronavirus risk group, but he’s in reasonably good health, he said.
“I feel comfortable they’ve taken every precaution they can. I think that it will be adequate,” he said. “There’s no contact this year. Santa will be masked, and we’ll have the 6 feet of distancing, at a minimum. I feel like Santa’s going to be safe.”