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Milwaukee Mall Finds Socially Distanced Way For Kids To Meet Santa

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Taking a photo with Santa is much trickier this year. Pandemic concerns and physical distancing have forced people hoping for the Santa experience to come up with alternative ways that keep that holiday tradition alive and safe. From member station WUWM in Milwaukee, Latoya Dennis has this report.

LATOYA DENNIS, BYLINE: For kids around the world, sitting on Santa's lap is a sacred holiday tradition. Some families spend hours in line waiting on their chance to see Santa, but not this year. Across the country, long lines are being replaced with reservation systems, and there's absolutely no sitting on Santa's lap. At a shopping mall just outside Milwaukee, kids are donning masks and sitting on a bench six feet away for their visit. Santa gets close enough to take their Christmas wish lists and then returns to his seat to read them aloud.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Santa, I hope you've been well. What I would like for Christmas is a COVID-free world. So would we, my friend. So would we - or at least a vaccine.

DENNIS: That note was from 12-year-old Will Neumann. And he also asks for more typical things, like a hoverboard and a new phone. His mom, Kelly Neumann, says that while it's not the Santa experience they're used to, she's thankful for it.

KELLY NEUMANN: It's just a happiness. Like, in this time when it's been so challenging, it's nice to have something that they're able to do that they've been used to doing and not have to say no.

DENNIS: Neumann says safety precautions in place made her feel confident about bringing her kids here today.

NEUMANN: I appreciate that Santa had a mask on. I appreciate that there's a little bit of distance and it's not terribly crowded.

DENNIS: While some businesses have found ways to safely have Santa appear in person, others are choosing to go virtual and relying on pre-recorded videos like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL AKERT: It is me, Santa Claus. Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas.

DENNIS: That's Paul Akert, who sits in for the real Santa. He's on contract with the local toy store, which is charging $25 for each one-minute video. Akert films them in his basement, though his backdrop makes it look like he's recording from Santa's workshop. He provides both video and streaming options, and parents give him the information Santa should have about their children - things like whether they have siblings, where they go to school and their favorite color. He says that while he misses the energy he gets from face-to-face interaction, in some ways, connecting online is more personal.

AKERT: You can imagine I'm talking with one child, and another one wants my attention. And so being able to give the children undivided attention just for their time is a little bit more of a challenge in person.

DENNIS: While online visits with Santa aren't new, the pandemic is making them much more popular. Ric Erwin chairs the board of directors for the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas. He says about a third of his members canceled all of their in-person work this year. He says those who sit in for the real Santa at events are relying on plexiglass barriers and even snow-globe-like structures to protect themselves. Still, he says, they are working to spread the joy of Christmas. Erwin says everyone is ready for a post-COVID world, but he says even when that occurs, he suspects that the option of videos will remain popular.

RIC ERWIN: I believe that virtual visitation is going to become eventually as popular as the family Santa photo has been for generations.

DENNIS: Erwin says it's easy to embrace the convenience of getting to see Santa without ever having to leave your home.

For NPR News, I'm Latoya Dennis in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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