Mall Santas make cautious comeback from COVID-19

Some went virtual, others were in bubbles, but in many cases there was no Santa Claus at all.

COVID-19 took a heavy blow to helpers at Santa’s shopping mall last year, when the pandemic was in its second wave and many holiday traditions were canceled. Some are making a comeback this year with safety precautions.

At London’s White Oaks Mall, cheerful greetings and children’s laughter echoed through the ornate hallways on Monday. Behind the tall white beard to replace Santa Claus was Anthony Blois, a fully vaccinated Londoner and father of six.

“It’s very exciting,” said Blois. “There are adults who come up and say, ‘Can I hug you? Can I have a photo? ‘

“I think we’ve been through a few tough years and people are like, ‘You know what? Let’s do something happy. Let’s do something fun. Let’s do something stupid. This is where I come in.

Used to the role, Blois played the role of Santa Claus at events and parties for seven years. This year is her first at a mall, however.

Santa’s visits to select area malls come close to the traditional in-person experience this year, where families can choose to have their kids sit with Santa Claus or stay socially distanced, separated by plexiglass . The set is disinfected between each visit, about five minutes each, down from the 10-minute sessions last year.

New this year at White Oaks, the booth operates daily instead of just Fridays and weekends like last year.

With vaccinations now in full swing, unlike last year, and masking rules in place, organizers wanted to give visitors enough time to enjoy the holiday spirit in a safe manner, said Saraya Barth, who owns and manages the photo booth.

“This year people are a little more adjusted to the way things are going,” she said, adding that almost every day was full.

“People are more comfortable seeing Santa Claus (now),” she said.

Reservations are made by appointment only, except for people without an appointment during less busy hours.

The security routine is the same at Westmount Mall in London and the Elgin Center Mall in St. Thomas, said Barth, who also operates the kiosks that are open there on weekends.

At Masonville Place in London, daily Santa Claus tours are by reservation only, according to the mall’s website. There are no plexiglass barriers, but those looking to take a photo with the big man in red should stay a reindeer six feet away, a customer representative said.

In White Oaks, three-year-old Abbi beamed as she sat next to Old Saint Nick for a photo.

Her parents were delighted to carry on a holiday tradition in a more normal environment than last year.

“We were just too nervous last year,” said Jenny Weeks, Abbi’s mom. “But now with the vaccines and all the mask warrants. . . we just feel more secure.

“Simple things like this are a treat,” said Alex Haight Haldane, the girl’s father.

This is a bonus made possible at White Oaks by four different Santa Claus substitutes volunteering their time during the holiday season.

The best part, for Blois, is interacting with families and children.

“Last week a little girl came over and sat next to me and said, ‘Santa, can I talk to you? “,” Said Blois.

“I would like a house for Christmas,” she told him.

“Did I say adorable, a dollhouse?” Maybe Santa can do it. Tell me more.”

“No Santa Claus, a house,” said the little girl. “We don’t live in a house.

“I said you know what, I can’t fix everything, I’m a toy maker. But I promise you this. I will pray for you (and) for your family. . . Each night, be sure to say your prayers, and something good will come out of it. ”

When the little girl left, she said to Blois: “I believe in you.

“That’s the trick,” he said. “That’s the reason I’m here.”

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Edwin S. Wolfe