Santa Claus is different this year. He wears a mask and his lap is mostly off limits. Outdoors he waves to boys and girls from a safe distance, and indoors a sheet of plexiglass separates him from his visitors.
“It’s odd to be segregated from them by the glass and harder to hear,” Roy Ohrberg said. Mr. Ohrberg is 65 and in his fifth year playing Santa. He had a mask custom-printed from a photograph of his smile and beard.
“But we keep them safe and we bring great joy to them,” he continued. “I’m portraying a character that’s looking out for them. That’s really important for kids to know, too, that they’re being thought of and cared for by someone other than their parents.”
Across the country, all kinds of venues — from shopping malls, to family-run holiday light shows — have had to consider safety from the coronavirus when deciding whether to have visits with Santa Claus this year. A visit to 14 holiday attractions in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey showed how different Santas adapted to the new world of holiday cheer.
In Walnutport, Pa., the Lehigh Township Fire Company made its annual holiday event an entirely stay-in-your-car experience. David Sheats, 51, dressed as Santa, while his wife, Janet Sheats, posed as Mrs. Claus. The elves were their teenage sons. From tented North Pole displays on the premises of Becky’s Drive-In Theater, they greeted passing cars.
In Hammonton, N.J., DiDonato Family Fun Center, a family-run business since 1952, was decorated as usual with five million lights, but Santa’s workshop was equipped with air filtration. Santa met children and families wearing a face shield.
In Lewes, Del., Kenneth Morris, 25 and in his third year as Santa, wore a white neck gaiter as a face mask, and posed, physically distanced, with children from a garden shed painted red and decorated with a toy soldier, an elf and a sack of toys.
And at shopping malls, where millions of households see Santa Claus, he is usually penned behind a plexiglass barrier.
John Byers, 63, in his seventh year portraying Santa Claus, sees a positive development from the plexiglass protection at the Willow Grove Park Mall in Willow Grove, Pa. Toddlers, he said, “are Santa-phobic. It’s a lot easier if they have the screen. We’ve gotten pictures this year that we never have been able to before. One of the big pluses of the pandemic.”
“We had moms crying thanking us for being here. It’s such a strong tradition for families,” Mr. Byers continued. “To not do it is one more reminder that life isn’t normal.”