Santa visits get a pandemic makeover in person and online - for a safer, more inclusive Christmas

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Bay Area children hoping to sit on Santa's lap this year are in for some big changes, but it is still possible to get quality time with Saint Nick.

A lot of Santa's helpers who usually staff malls and department stores are older and at high risk for COVID-19. So to keep both them and visiting children safe, the old traditions are undergoing a major revamp.

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Some malls are providing Santa visits starting in late November, but they will be reimagined to promote social distancing.

Brookfield Properties which owns Stonestown Galleria in San Francisco, Southland Mall in Hayward and NewPark Mall in Newark, is working behind the scenes on new Christmas sets.

They wouldn't show us the real thing, but mock ups of their potential Santa sets show piles of gifts and giant picture frames used to separate children from Santa. Other drawings show Santa inside a snow globe and behind a plastic shield to prevent the spread of illness.

Santa will wear a mask, get daily health checks and there will be constant cleaning, according to Brookfield. The malls' Santa visits will start in late November.

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Macy's is doing its Santa experience completely online this year. Starting Nov. 27 you can take a virtual tour of Macy's Santaland, a long tradition that is usually an in person experience at the store. Macy's plans to have elves lead online visitors through what they say will be an interactive holiday trip to the North Pole. It is free and no reservations are required.

A company called Hire Santa that was featured on the ABC show Shark Tank is still providing some in-person Santa visits this year, but "head elf" Mitch Allen says the team is also pivoting to virtual visits. A sample video of a Hire Santa online visit shows Santa in his workshop, chatting with a little boy about the usual Christmas topics, then in a nod to health concerns, he talks about the importance of handwashing.

JingleRing is another online Santa provider and founder Walt Geer told us his team is focused on making the visits very personal so anybody anywhere can experience Santa "the way they want to tell the story in their family."

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JingleRing is offering Santa visits in multiple languages, including American sign language. There are Santas trained to work with special needs children and various versions of Mrs. Claus available.
JingleRing has also lined up racially diverse Santas and they are looking for more. Geer estimates there are about five thousand performers who play Santa each year, but there is a problem. "We're looking for Black Santa, we're looking for Latino Santa, maybe Asian Santa, Polynesian Santa - and what we are finding is there just aren't many of them" Geer said.

Geer believes there are a lot of people who play Santa Claus at churches or community events but never thought of doing it professionally. So would-be Santas now is your chance! And since the visits are on line - you can apply from anywhere and work from your home.

JingleRing is set up so many family members in different locations can watch the visits together and the company is doing special outreach to military families.

"So for example, if there's a military base in Japan or South Korea or somewhere over in Germany or the Middle East, we've got Santa performers who are committed to get up, working in the middle of the night, so that so that they can facilitate JingleRing experiences for those around the world" Geer said.

Prices on these virtual experiences vary, depending on how early you make reservations and the type of visit you choose. You can get videos and photos, and you might even end up spending less than some of the traditional photo packages offered at many malls.

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