Ho Ho No! COVID-19 has Santa’s lap in no-sit zone The Chandler Arizonan

Ho Ho No! COVID-19 has Santa’s lap in no-sit zone

November 27th, 2020 Chandler Arizona Staff
Ho Ho No! COVID-19 has Santa’s lap in no-sit zone
City News
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By Kristine Cannon
Staff Writer

Socially distant photos. No sitting on laps. Waving to a masked-up Saint Nick through a clear, frequently sanitized plexiglass shield.

This year’s Santa Claus experience – in malls and private residences, alike – will look different due to COVID-19.

But that isn’t stopping Santa Clauses-for-hire from entertaining the kiddos this year.

Well, it isn’t stopping most of them.

At Tempe-based Santa Claus and Company, a third of owner Mark Brenneman’s group of entertainers that comprise Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves opted out of performing this year.

“They said, ‘Hey, I’m going to sit out this season. I don’t want to work, and I don’t want to take a chance,” Brenneman said, adding that typically he has 30 entertainers on-hand over the holidays.

What the performers didn’t want to take a chance with was contracting COVID-19 – and the actors who perform the role of Santa and Mrs. Claus are often in the high-risk category.

“The majority of the people who work in this industry as Santas are in the 60, 65-up age range. They’re higher-risk for COVID; I, myself, am 70 years old,” said Brenneman, a retired teacher who has donned the Santa suit for nearly 50 years.

Booked gigs are down, too.

On average, Santa Claus and Company, which has been around since 1972, books 200 to 300 home visits and clocks in 260 to 300 hours at malls and holiday events like Phoenix Zoo’s ZooLights and Schnepf Farms’ annual Christmas event.

This year, however, Brenneman’s business is down roughly 35 to 40 percent.

“Although, I will tell you that over the last week, we’re getting a rash of calls” for home visits, Brenneman said.

“It’s really an up-in-the-air business,” he added.

Also on the rise are virtual Santa visits.

“They certainly have exploded,” said Deanna Golden, who fulfills multiple roles at IBRBS, an international organization for Santas and Mrs. Clauses.

Golden – a.k.a. Mrs. Anna Claus – lives in Cave Creek and is one of more than 150 IBRBS members in Arizona.

IBRBS has nearly 2,000 members nationwide and many of them have rallied to take training sessions and webinars to help them pull off seamless, uninterrupted, and — most importantly — entertaining and memorable virtual Santa visits, Golden said.

They have even practiced with friends and family to ensure their online visits with children are an “amazing experience” for the kids.

“When so many are worried that Santa won’t come visit Christmas Eve, a virtual visit reminds children that Santa is most definitely here and looking forward to his Christmas Eve visit,” Golden said.

“Parents are happy that they don’t have to stand in line at the mall and can plan a virtual visit to fit their schedule. Even more, the ‘visit’ can include extended family members, like Grandma and Grandpa who live in another state,” she explained.

Gilbert resident Jerry Gibbens, the founder and owner of Zippy Entertainment, is no stranger to offering virtual Santa visits.

Portraying Santa since 2014, Gibbens’ Full Virtual Santa Claus Show takes families on a virtual tour of the North Pole, where they meet reindeer and tour of the toy shop and Santa’s workshop.

Gibbens has offered this show well before a pandemic.

So far this year, he has at least 10 virtual visits — and counting — scheduled.

“We’re currently growing between in-person as well as virtual Santa visits,” Gibbens said. “We have added [virtual visits] to our [in-person] package as a way of saying ‘thank you’ for booking us for free leading up to their in-person visit with Santa Claus. We didn’t do this because of COVID-19; we always believe in taking care of our clients and families year after year.”

Home visits are one of Zippy’s popular services, too, with the business averaging about 15 home visits per holiday season.

Different this year, however, are the protocols that Gibbens and his clients follow both before and during visits.

In addition to both parties wearing a face mask and keeping a distance of at least 6 feet, Gibbens will take all guests’ temperatures and have them sign a document stating that they followed CDC guidelines.

Also, no lap sitting.

At all.

“They can take their pictures either standing or sitting next to Santa Claus or sitting in front of Santa Claus on the floor,” Gibbens said, adding that families do have flexibility on wearing masks while taking photos.

“Clients and families do have the option to either wear the masks or take off the masks for their pictures with Santa Claus,” Gibbens said.

Brenneman, on the other hand, does not require his entertainers wear face masks, but he does require they wear face shields.

“I am issuing face shields to all my Santas,” Brenneman said. “When it comes to a mask it’s between them and the customer. So, I am not requiring them to wear a mask, but they can talk to the customer about it.”

Physical contact is also banned for Brenneman and his Santas.

“There will be no physical contact between Santa and any of the children or any of the people there. They can stand around Santa or behind Santa for pictures, but there’ll be no touching whatsoever,” he said, adding that Santa will also wear gloves and change gloves for every appearance.

“It’s going to be very much very non-touch,” Brenneman said.

And that includes not handing out candy or other sweet treats, and not touching or handing out any presents.

“If a client wants us to hand out presents, then they will have the presents there, or they they’ll be in a bag for us to carry in and they’ll hand out the presents. We’re not going to handle them,” Brenneman said.

Santa visits at malls very much
reflect a similar no-touch, socially distant experience.

In addition to requiring advance reservations, Macerich’s malls – including Scottsdale Fashion Square, Kierland Commons, and Chandler Fashion Center – require Santas and guests over 2 years old to wear masks and socially distance at all times.

Hand sanitizer will be available upon entering and exiting, and the staff will “regularly” deep clean the set.

“As we have with our centers, the Santa set will undergo regular intensified cleaning and sanitization, and the health and well-being of our staff and Santa will be monitored daily,” said Rachel Olish, Scottsdale Fashion Square events and communications manager.

“High-touch-point areas, like the photo seating area and point of sale, will be cleaned regularly throughout the day between guest visits,” she said.

At the start of the season, Santas — provided by New Jersey-based Cherry Hill Programs, which boasts a network of more than 1,300 Santa characters — are tested and quarantined for 14 days. They are then screened daily prior to every shift.

According to Olish, Macerich did not forgo in-person Santa visits due to demand.

“Santa is not only a storied tradition at malls during the holidays, but now more than ever, people are excited about things in life that feel ‘normal.’ In order to create lasting memories with their families, we have thoughtfully adapted Santa visits for today’s health concerns,” Olish explained.

Santas already are doing their thing at Scottsdale Fashion Square and Chandler Fashion Center and will be at Kierland Commons starting Dec. 4.

Retail stores such as Bass Pro Shops, which has locations in Mesa and Glendale, will also require face coverings for their contactless, socially distant Santa visits, as well as place a “glare-free clear protective barrier” between Santa and families.

They will also take the temperatures of all families, which are also required to make advance reservations, and team members with a non-contact thermometer prior to entering Santa’s Wonderland, as well as clean all surfaces between each visit.

“This year has been incredibly difficult for so many kids and families,” said Bass Pro Shops Founder Johnny Morris. “With countless activities canceled and many families dealing with added stress, we feel it’s more important than ever to provide some free Christmas magic and help safely create cherished holiday memories.”

However, for the first time in at least 35 years, Santa won’t make an appearance at McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park’s popular Holiday Lights event in Scottsdale.

Last year, about 1,700 families visited Santa at the Railroad Park’s annual holiday event.

This year, they gave Santa the year off due to the pandemic.

“Santa is concerned about COVID-19, as he falls into a higher risk category for coronavirus based on CDC and public health guidelines,” said Parks & Recreation Manager Nick Molinari.

“Normally, Santa sees hundreds of children and families nightly. Many sit on his lap, with others in close proximity in an adorable, yet small, vintage Santa Fe train depot. Our goal this year was to create a completely outdoor event. So, Santa and the staff at the Railroad Park decided collectively that this would be a good year for him to take off,” Molinari continued.

In the end, families want some normalcy this holiday season. If it means welcoming Santa into the home virtually or paying a masked-up, socially distant visit, they’ll do it.

“People are wanting some normalcy. They’re wanting something more than what has been happening. People are suffering from COVID fatigue,” Brenneman said.

Golden echoes Brenneman’s sentiment.

“More than ever, families, and especially children, need to hold on to the traditions of Christmas and not let anything get in their way. Christmas is coming, and Santa will surely visit Christmas Eve. The greatest gift may not be under the tree, but rather the time spent with those you love. Be safe, but don’t be afraid,” she said.

“My personal philosophy is,” Golden continued, “don’t let anyone, or anything, steal your joy.”

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