Alaska’s mall Santas face new precautions in COVID-19 era, but kids don’t seem to mind

Kids interact with Santa from behind a plexiglass barrier at Bass Pro Shop in Anchorage on Dec. 16, 2020. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Visits with mall Santas are a hallmark of the holidays for many families, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced mall managers to make changes to the tradition. And while the new precautions may feel strange to parents, most kids seem unfazed by the masks and plexiglass.

At Bass Pro Shops in Mountain View, Sonya Callahan said her shy two-year-old appreciated the glass barrier.

“She doesn’t like people,” Callahan said. “So I think the glass barrier actually preserved this option, and made it possible for her to smile because she felt a little safer having that barrier between her and the big scary red guy.”

At the Christmas village set up in the corner of the store, there are plastic trees covered in artificial snow, dozens of presents piled up and even Santa’s house.

A group of three children ages 3, 5, and 6 gawked at the display as they shared their favorite things about Christmas. Santa had to remind them to talk loudly so their voices make it through their cloth masks and the ten-foot plexiglass barrier.

Miranda Strong was there with her two kids, making a quick stop for a photo on their way to ski practice. They hadn’t been to see a Santa in a while, but a friend talked her into it.

“She thought it would be pretty zeitgeisty of 2020 to have photo of 2020 with Santa behind the glass,” she said.

But her son Calvin was earnest in his wish for a Jurassic World Lego set.

“It’s like a giant T-rex and a fence, a giant fence,” he said.

Santa Claus himself, who uses the name Tim Smith when he has to fill out paperwork, said he’s been working in malls around the country for years. He’s refusing to let the pandemic stress get to kids.

“I’m avoiding the pandemic,” he said. “I’m trying to emphasize making the magic happen for the children.”

But the reality of the pandemic is still there. Kids sometimes try to walk around the glass to sit on his lap, and he has to remind them to stay on the other side. He can still promise presents like Play Stations and remote control trucks, but it can get heavier, too. He recently had a boy wish for his mother to recover from cancer.

“Children will talk to Santa and ask Santa things that they won’t talk to their parents or their pastor about because they’ve come to trust Santa,” he said.

The pandemic temperature checks and layers of plexiglass have changed a lot between Santa and the kids who come to see him, but they haven’t changed that trust.

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