Malls across Long Island will welcome Santa back next month with open arms — at a distance.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual tradition of kids chatting up Santa about their Christmas wish lists — and being photographed doing so — will look different this year, when St. Nick will be sporting a mask and sitting 6 feet away from youngsters as part of social distancing efforts to help stop the spread of the virus.
So, sitting on Santa’s lap is nixed this year.
"The whole message is it’s a contactless Santa," said Amaka Muir, spokeswoman for Broadway Commons mall in Hicksville.
Broadway Commons’ Santa visits are organized by Cherry Hill Programs, a Marlton, New Jersey-based company that runs most American malls’ holiday programs, including booking Santa, elves, photographers and other helpers, and hosting an online reservation system and mall directory of scheduled Santa appearances nationwide at whereissanta.com.
The company is running the Santa programs at all major malls on Long Island, including Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, Walt Whitman Shops in Huntington Station, Roosevelt Field in Garden City, Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, Sunrise Mall in Massapequa and Westfield South Shore in Bay Shore.
The malls' socially distanced visits will include the bearded gift-giver and all his helpers wearing masks, and online reservations are strongly encouraged, according to Cherry Hill Programs.
In the past, Broadway Commons flew Santa in from Houston for the holiday season, Muir said. But this year the mall will use local Santas to avoid their having to travel by plane and quarantine for two weeks before the gigs start, she said.
Also, a barrier, such as a short wall of gift boxes, will be installed on the Broadway Commons holiday set that will keep 6 feet of distance between Santa and visiting children, said Muir. Santa will be at the mall Nov. 27 through Christmas Eve.
Santa and staff "will have daily health screenings and temperature checks, and there will be a focus on hygiene and cleanliness at the set," Cherry Hill Programs said. The company said it will "follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health agencies, including all the day-to-day best practices we are accustomed to seeing in other retail businesses and public areas." Cherry Hill also will offer online visits with Santa.
Mom Maggie Badum of Lake Grove keeps scrapbooks for both her daughters, Brielle, 8, and Lily, 5, with photos of them each year since Brielle turned 1 with the Easter Bunny and Santa, many of them taken at nearby Smith Haven Mall or at Westfield South Shore.
This year, the Easter Bunny is missing. And now, Santa might be a blank page, too.
Badum is on the fence about taking her daughters to a mall for a Santa photo, but most likely will skip it this year, even with restrictions in place to protect against the spread of the virus, she said.
"I am so torn, but the mall is so public," said Badum, 33, who is a dog groomer. "As much as I love our Santa pictures, the cons outweigh the pros, especially with all the limitations, which I do understand."
Having Santas at malls continues to be an annual tradition in part because mall landlords believe it helps to drive foot traffic to stores.
It also helps support the social aspect of seasonal shopping, said Brian Field, senior director of global retail consulting at Sensormatic Solutions, a Boca Raton, Florida-based provider of technology to the retail industry.
The draw of Santa and his crew of elves is seen as even more critical this year, since concerns about the pandemic are going to reduce store foot traffic.
In-store foot traffic for the six-week season will decline 22% to 25%, compared to the same period last year, Sensormatic predicts. The 10 busiest days of the year, including Black Friday and the Saturday before Christmas, will be less significant, as shoppers spread out their holiday shopping more, the company said.
In-store shopping on those 10 days is projected to account for 34.2% of all holiday foot traffic this year, compared with 46.5% for the same period in 2019.
"For 2020, the pageantry of the holiday shopping season may well give way to more purposeful shopping visits, and we expect that to flatten out in-store traffic activity throughout the season such that there will be fewer significant spikes in traffic during the top shopping days," Field said.
With Beth Whitehouse
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