South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)
Ho, ho, whoa! Santas playing it safe in the coronavirus age
MIAMI — Brad Six becomes Santa Claus, pulling his black boots over his red pants in the office of a Miami outdoor supply company. It’s hot, so he forgoes the traditional heavy jacket for a lightweight vest and grabs his Santa hat.
But before sliding it on, the gray-bearded 61-yearold dons a plastic face shield and then takes his chair positioned behind a plexiglass sheet.
“Getting paid is nice, but to get your battery recharged and to really get something lasting out of it requires interacting with the kids— you don’t get a lot of that this year,” said Six, who first portrayed Santa 35 years ago.
This is Santa Claus in the Coronavirus Age, where visits are conducted with layers of protection or online. Putting hundreds of kids daily on to Santa’s lap to talk into his face — that’s not happening for most. The physical attributes that make the perfect Santa align perfectly with those that make COVID-19 especially deadly.
“Most of us tick all the boxes: We are old, we are overweight, we have diabetes and if we don’t have diabetes, we have heart disease,” said Stephen Arnold, the president of IBRBS, an association formerly known as the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.
That has spurred creativity in Santa’s workshops. Santas conducting in-person visits are using some combination of masks, the outdoors, barriers and distance for safety. Others are doing virtual visits, where children chat with Santa online for prices typically ranging from $20 to $100, depending on the length and extras, such as whether customers want a recording. Some Santas are taking the season off.
“Santa safety is our No. 1 concern” and negotiated into every contract, said Mitch Allen, president of Hire Santa, one of the nation’s largest agencies. He said the pandemic initially dried up his business, but it bounced back, especially online.
The average Santa makes $5,000 to $10,000 during a normal season, Allen said. That’s a welcome bonus for men often retired on a fixed income, but many Santas say revenue is down as corporate parties and other lucrative gigs evaporated.
One of the hardest adjustments Santas have made is wearing masks that hide their painstakingly grown beards.
“Santa performers are fairly vain people — if they are good,” Grimes said.
The virus has many Santas and parents turning to virtual visits, which are booked through each Santa’s personal website or agencies like Allen’s. That often has Santas turning to their children and others for help mastering the computer skills needed.
“It has been a challenge,” said Christopher Saunders, a Santa performer in Tool, Texas.
But Saunders and others say virtual sessions are a good if imperfect substitute for in-person visits. Parents fill out questionnaires, allowing performers to personalize their patter, and a side benefit is that the sessions aren’t rushed. Many Santa mall visits last no more than two minutes to keep the line moving.
“You get a different energy,” Saunders said of the virtual visits. “You can see the child’s expressions, as pure as they are.”