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Nov 20, 2020
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This year, in many places, "ho ho ho" is a no-go, or at least with more reins on our little dears.

A visit to the mall to sit on the jolly old elf's lap may be yet another tradition knocked to the wayside or dramatically altered by COVID-19, as some stores cancel in-person visits, and St. Nick greets kids through plexiglass or while wearing a mask.

For the first time in 158 years, kids won't be able to visit with Santa at Macy's iconic flagship store in New York City, an experience so ingrained in American culture that there was even a movie about it – Miracle on 34th Street.

And while that's bad news for kids, it may be worse news for all those Santas who count on gigs at department stores and office Christmas bashes to earn extra cash – or, in some cases, a big chunk of their annual income.

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Mike Hadrych exchanged his jacket and tie for a red Santa suit more than a decade ago, after he retired and began to spend the early days of winter listening to kids' wish lists.

Mike Hadrych, who plays Santa every year, is booking fewer gigs this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
He's made up to 70 appearances during a single year. Business was off to a slow start earlier in the fall, when he'd picked up just two bookings at a time when he would typically have had 20 to 30.

Now, however, things are looking up.

"I’m going to be better off than I thought I was going to be and I’m not as concerned,'' said Hadrych, 73, who lives with his family in Canoga Park, California. He's now booked another 25 in-person events and nearly a dozen visits via video. "I’m still not going to make what I made but ... I’m ahead of where I thought I’d be at this point.’’

A mall Santa with "a real beard, real belly, real laugh,'' can make anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 working through November and December, says Mitch Allen, founder of HireSanta.com, which taps a database of roughly 2,000 entertainers to place Santa Claus at events and venues worldwide.

For many Santa Claus entertainers who are retired and living on a fixed income, that extra cash is crucial. Other Santas work as storytellers or perform different characters for audiences year round. But those roles largely disappeared because of shutdowns caused by COVID-19, making this holiday season even more critical for them to make ends meet.

Hadrych is among those who have earned more than $10,000 playing St. Nick, typically starting in November and finishing up his rounds in early January.

"It's nothing to sneeze at,'' he says of the money, adding that ticking off kids' wish lists also allows him to tick off a few bills. “The income I make is enough to pay off our insurance ... and our property taxes. So it comes in handy.''

Mike Hadrych plays Santa every year but so far is getting fewer bookings amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Christmas with no Santa?
There are still malls, retailers, and party hosts, who want Santa to appear live.

Allen initially thought in-person Santa bookings would be down as much as 40% this holiday season. But now that some retailers have mapped out safety protocols such as extending hours to reduce crowding, "in person visits have bounced back'' Allen says.

"We are ... seeing a real desire to have the traditions of Christmas and Santa this year,'' Allen says.

The Simon Property Group has said that Santa will be appearing at its shopping centers.

And Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s are implementing a range of safeguards to enable kids to meet with Santa, from a clear barrier called a "Magic Santa Shield" that separates St. Nick from his pint-sized visitors and is cleaned after each meeting, to winter-themed floor markers to make sure waiting families are safely distanced.

All families have to have their temperature taken with a non-contact thermometer prior to entering stores' Santa’s Wonderland.

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“This year has been incredibly difficult for so many kids and families,” Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris said in a statement. “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.”

Neiman Marcus shoppers can also get a glimpse of Santa when they use curbside pick up, as the jolly guy himself forgoes the chimney to bring packages to their cars.

Hadrych says that while some clients aren't asking him to don protective gear, he plans to wear a mask or a shield for others. He also intends to take a COVID-19 test every week.

“I’ve had a couple of clients ask me if I would do a COVID test before coming to see them and I told them I would,'' he said, adding that while it's mostly to reassure those who are hiring him, it's "also a little bit for myself too.''

Michael Howe has portrayed Santa Claus off and on for 27 years. But after retiring last June from his career as a middle school computer teacher, Howe, who lives in Reed City, Michigan, decided to become a professional Santa to continue being able to connect with children.

“There’s a real sense of urgency,'' Howe, 60, said. "This privilege of portraying Santa is more important this year than it has been in a long time for a lot of us, just because of the unrest within our country, and the challenges economically and socially.’’

Michael Howe worries there will be fewer in-person opportunities to play Santa Claus this holiday season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But many of those who say they would like to book Howe this season have hesitated as they try to determine the best way to proceed in the midst of the health crisis. While he had 30 in person visits last year, Howe's had only two so far this holiday season and says four other bookings could be canceled.

In a more typical year, Howe says he could make between $6,000 to $8,000.

“It’s very meaningful to me because, even though I’m retired as a public school teacher, I’m not drawing Social Security yet,'' he says. "The income is very needed.’’

Howe says he has his own concerns about the coronavirus's possible spread. "I want to do personal visits,'' he says, "but I also want to make sure that I’m safe.''
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