Socially distant Santas try new techniques at Georgia malls, stores

Brooklynn McCarty, 8, (R) and her twin sister Madison, 8, talk with Santa Clause at the Perimeter Mall Sunday, November 22, 2020   STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Brooklynn McCarty, 8, (R) and her twin sister Madison, 8, talk with Santa Clause at the Perimeter Mall Sunday, November 22, 2020 STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

North Pole visits bring pandemic twists this year

Do not get too close to Santa, kids.

Malls, stores and entertainment destinations have gone socially distant with Saint Nick this pandemic-strained holiday season.

He’ll still be seeing visitors in mall common areas and other locations around metro Atlanta and the nation. But his lap is generally off limits. So are hugs, high fives and handshakes. And you won’t be able to get close enough to whisper in his ear.

In many cases, Santa Claus programs are cranking up weeks later than usual. Several launched locally last Friday or were set to start the day after Thanksgiving. Greenbriar Mall bumped its launch of in-person Santa visits to Dec. 12.

Mall operators believe Santa not only draws customers but helps build personal connections with shoppers, especially when visitors come back year after year to get photos with the same Father Christmas. That’s particularly important this year, given the battering many mall operators have taken amid the pandemic and accompanying economic pain.

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David Greenwald, Alex Ellul, and her daughter Logan Rush, 3, pose for a photograph with Santa Clause at the Perimeter Mall Sunday, November 22, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

   
David Greenwald, Alex Ellul, and her daughter Logan Rush, 3, pose for a photograph with Santa Clause at the  Perimeter Mall Sunday, November 22, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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David Greenwald, Alex Ellul, and her daughter Logan Rush, 3, pose for a photograph with Santa Clause at the Perimeter Mall Sunday, November 22, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

It’s also been another way for brick-and-mortar outlets to offer something that online shopping usually didn’t, though that’s also changing some this year.

Among the new offerings this season: online Zoom calls with Santa, set up by Cherry Hill Programs, which also runs in-person Santa programs at hundreds of malls nationally.

And an Alpharetta-based couple, Walt Geer and Sarah Blackman, launched JingleRing, which promises live virtual visits with Santa online. For the last two years the pair had run Santa’s Fantastical, an immersive holiday destination inside a former Babies “R” Us. They pivoted during the pandemic to launch JingleRing and are now teamed up with Brookfield Properties, a mall owner with properties that include Cumberland, Perimeter and North Point in metro Atlanta.

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People who visit Kris Kringle in the physical world will notice other changes, including how photos are taken. The setups vary, but one option involves kids and their families sitting, with Santa at least six feet in the background, sometimes striking an animated pose to avoid being missed.

Years from now, families will know exactly when that particular photo was taken, predicts Kristina Circelli, the marketing director for CBL Properties, which owns Arbor Place mall in Douglasville. “’Oh, that’s a 2020 memory.”

Others are setting out props, from wrapped packages to plants, that will double as partial barricades to encourage safe distancing. At some Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, Santa sits behind “The Magic Santa Shield,” also known as a clear plastic barrier.

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Visits to Santa at metro Atlanta malls and stores during the pandemic are often still happening, but with a slate of new precautions in place. Props kept nine-year-old Abby Rollins separated from Santa, who wore a face shield, on a recent visit at the Bass Pro Shops store in Duluth. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Visits to Santa at metro Atlanta malls and stores during the pandemic are often still happening, but with a slate of new precautions in place. Props kept nine-year-old Abby Rollins separated from Santa, who wore a face shield, on a recent visit at the Bass Pro Shops store in Duluth. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

caption arrowCaption
Visits to Santa at metro Atlanta malls and stores during the pandemic are often still happening, but with a slate of new precautions in place. Props kept nine-year-old Abby Rollins separated from Santa, who wore a face shield, on a recent visit at the Bass Pro Shops store in Duluth. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

“Strange,” said nine-year-old Abby Rollins at a Bass Pro Shops in Duluth.

She tentatively peered around the plastic to make an important request of Santa, who wore a clear face shield in addition to his bright red suit with white trim but no mask. Her message somehow carried six feet, heard over the background holiday music: She’d like a stuffed animal toy, specifically a St. Bernard.

Seven-year-old Brayden Long, who has been visiting the store’s Santa since his first Christmas, pronounced the setup “pretty good.”

His mom, Kitty, said he had asked about sitting on Santa’s lap. “We just have to do things a little different,” she had explained. “But it doesn’t mean he is not going to bring presents.”

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Visits to Santa at metro Atlanta malls and stores during the pandemic are often still happening, but with a slate of new precautions in place. Among the additions: masks, temperature checks and physical barriers. On a recent visit, a clear plastic wall separated seven-year-old Brayden Long from Santa, wearing a face shield, at the Bass Pro Shops store in Duluth. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Visits to Santa at metro Atlanta malls and stores during the pandemic are often still happening, but with a slate of new precautions in place. Among the additions: masks, temperature checks and physical barriers. On a recent visit, a clear plastic wall separated seven-year-old Brayden Long from Santa, wearing a face shield, at the Bass Pro Shops store in Duluth. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

caption arrowCaption
Visits to Santa at metro Atlanta malls and stores during the pandemic are often still happening, but with a slate of new precautions in place. Among the additions: masks, temperature checks and physical barriers. On a recent visit, a clear plastic wall separated seven-year-old Brayden Long from Santa, wearing a face shield, at the Bass Pro Shops store in Duluth. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

One upside of the distancing at the store: Santa revealed that he hasn’t had a single child cry so far this season.

“They feel protected” by the barrier, said Santa John.

Visitors have been very understanding so far, he said, adding he wouldn’t have felt comfortable without the health precautions in place.

Rather than have customers lined up nearly to Santa, as they have been in the past, the store has cordoned off a large area behind curtains, where only one family is allowed at a time, along with the requisite elves.

Many malls are encouraging or requiring reservations for Santa visits, with hopes of limiting wait times and lines, where they say they will enforce social distancing.

Some are requiring kids and their families to wear masks and pass on-site temperature checks. Others say Santa and his elves will be wearing masks the entire time, including in photos.

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Brooklynn McCarty, 8, looks at the photograph of her and her sister taken with Santa Clause at the Perimeter Mall Sunday, November 22, 2020 STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

 Brooklynn McCarty, 8, looks at the photograph of her and her sister taken with Santa Clause at the Perimeter Mall Sunday, November 22, 2020 STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Brooklynn McCarty, 8, looks at the photograph of her and her sister taken with Santa Clause at the Perimeter Mall Sunday, November 22, 2020 STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“Visits and photos with Santa are some of the most beloved and sacred traditions of the year,” emailed Rachel Wille, a spokeswoman for Brookfield Properties. “As we began to plan for a holiday season unlike any other, we wanted to do all that we could to preserve the magic of this experience while still keeping our guests as safe as possible.”

Mike Graber, a manager at the Bass Pro Shops in Duluth, said that with the new precautions in place, peak days for Santa visits will probably accommodate only half as many kids as in years past. They’ve also eliminated the craft tables this year for safety reasons, he said.

Knowing that Santa would be behind a plastic barrier, Kristena Rollins had prepared for her daughter and son’s visit by putting together a cardboard frame she had hoped to put up around the plastic. The paint hadn’t dried in time to bring it, but the plan was to have what looked like candy-cane-themed jail bars across it, framing Santa behind it.

“Free Santa,” it said. “2021, come on!”

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Irina and Adrian Patru brought their 11-month-old baby, Samson, to visit Santa at the Bass Pro Shops store in Duluth. A clear plastic barrier separated families from Santa as a protection during the pandemic. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Irina and Adrian Patru brought their 11-month-old baby, Samson, to visit Santa at the Bass Pro Shops store in Duluth. A clear plastic barrier separated families from Santa as a protection during the pandemic. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

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Irina and Adrian Patru brought their 11-month-old baby, Samson, to visit Santa at the Bass Pro Shops store in Duluth. A clear plastic barrier separated families from Santa as a protection during the pandemic. MATT KEMPNER / AJC


START DATES OF SOME LOCAL SANTA VISITS:

Phipps Plaza: Nov. 1

Mall of Georgia: Nov. 20

Perimeter Mall: Nov. 20

Town Center at Cobb: Nov. 20

Cumberland Mall: Nov. 27

Sugarloaf Mills: Nov. 27

North Georgia Premium Outlets: Nov. 27

Lenox Square: Nov. 27

North Point Mall: Nov. 27

Greenbriar Mall: Dec. 12

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Brooklynn McCarty, 8, (L) and her twin sister Madison, 8, talk with Santa Clause at the Perimeter Mall Sunday, November 22, 2020 STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Brooklynn McCarty, 8, (L) and her twin sister Madison, 8, talk with Santa Clause at the Perimeter Mall Sunday, November 22, 2020   STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

caption arrowCaption
Brooklynn McCarty, 8, (L) and her twin sister Madison, 8, talk with Santa Clause at the Perimeter Mall Sunday, November 22, 2020 STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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