“Everything is a little bit more somber than it would be in a normal year,” says Skapura when describing being hired for private home visits, where his contract requires that everyone wear a mask and adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines. “Whenever you come into the home, it's not the explosion of anticipation that it has been in past years.”
As cases continue to spike, the usual practice of children having one-on-ones with Santa have rightfully been put on hold. In Pittsburgh and around the country, the usual in-person experiences — complete with an obligatory photo of a child most likely bawling in a red-suited performer's lap — have been canceled, replaced with a virtual, or heavily modified, alternatives.
Skapura represents one of the avenues through which parents and caregivers are still trying to bring joy to their young family members this holiday season while still dealing with and, perhaps, addressing the realities of the pandemic. Skapura, who returned to his regular gig at the Waterfront shopping center in Homestead, says that, instead of avoiding the topic, safe COVID-19 practices have been incorporated into his visits with children.
“Whenever we're visiting children, we include some things about the pandemic to make them feel that the reality of Santa is the reality they're living in,” he says, adding how young visitors learn a hand-washing song and are told they will get on the “nice list” if they wear their masks and make sure to practice social distancing.
Skapura says he also talks to children through a glass separator, and that all children are required to wear masks no matter what.
There's also the issue of kids being worried about Santa getting sick, which Skapura says has been addressed through some creative means.
“Dr. Fauci saying Santa is immune was a great help,” laughs Skapura. Adding to this is the myth that Santa is “half-elf” and, therefore, immune to the COVID-19 virus.
While the time-honored tradition of mall Santas may seem like a no-go, some are still trying to keep it going through the crisis. Kristina Circelli, marketing director for Monroeville Mall, says people have been asking about Santa as early as September and “wanting to know what the holiday season would look like and if they’d still be able to have their photos taken.”
In order to avoid long lines and crowding, Circelli says the mall implemented an online system where visitors could reserve a time to meet with Santa. A press release reads that all visitors must also wear masks before, during, and after photos.
Even with these safeguards, however, some Santa experiences in Pittsburgh have been shut down, especially after the most recent order put through by Gov. Tom Wolf last week. This includes the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership deciding to end the Santa Zoom experience, along with the closure of the annual Peoples Gas Holiday Market in Downtown.
Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership CEO and president Jeremy Waldrup says that, while the “health and well-being of visitors Downtown has been a priority throughout the implementation of this seasons’ programs and attractions,” the Holiday Market “had to be cut short, but we understand the need to adhere to these new requirements for the safety of both our shoppers and vendors.”
For those still concerned about being exposed to the virus, there are virtual visits, an option many companies are more than happy to accommodate. Circelli says the mall offers virtual Santa visits through Cherry Hill Programs, a third-party vendor described as an “industry-leader in experiential photography” that operates holiday experiences in “over 800 venues across the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico during the Christmas and Easter seasons.”
Currently, Cherry Hill offers Create Holiday Magic packages where, for the low, low price of $59.99, kids can have a personalized VIP Live Video Visit with Santa from the North Pole, aka the Cherry Hill corporate office, a quarter of which was heavily converted to resemble the jolly old elf's headquarters. Other perks include digital photos with Santa, a sugar cookie kit, a Christmas Story Time book, and more.
Cherry Hill chief technology officer, Graham McFarland, says the virtual experience came about after the company surveyed their customers back in May and found that 30% of them “may not feel comfortable visiting Santa this year or may not be available given the restrictions.”
“We took this information and ran with it, accelerating our plans for a digital platform capable of providing alternatives and options for our customers this holiday season,” says McFarland.
Skapura says being able to conduct virtual visits has made a big difference for him, as he lost a significant portion of his income. This includes the complete loss of corporate parties, which he says accounts for about 20% of his business.
“I've had a lot of long time clients walk away because they want to continue having an old-fashioned Christmas, and we have to live up to the social distancing and mask wearing to make sure that we keep the children safe,” says Skapura.
Many of his contemporaries have not been so lucky. Skapura belongs to You Sleigh Me, a social organization of about 50 professional Santas, Mrs. Clauses, and other holiday performers from western Pa., Ohio, and West Virginia. The group is an affiliate chapter of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, which, among other things, represents 2,200 performers, many of whom are committed to maintaining real facial hair and other physical traits as a way to look more like Santa.
Skapura, who defines himself as a “real beard and belly Santa,” says the pandemic has led to some Santa performers quitting.
“It's heartbreaking because some folks who are older and have more underlying medical issues have hung up the suit this year,” says Skapura, emphasizing that the forced retirement means more than losing a source of income. “In this community, it's not just a job, it's also a lifestyle. ... You are Santa 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You look the part all year long.”
Still, Skapura says he and his fellow performers are committed to bringing joy to children and families, even if it means breaking with tradition. This includes foregoing Santa's signature red velvet suit because the costume needs dry cleaned, and therefore can't be repeatedly laundered to rid the fabric of any viral contaminants. As a result, Skapura says visitors will see Santas wearing more durable, washable cotton garments like overalls.
While precautions like requiring masks and costume changes are key to keeping him safe and healthy, Skapura says he's more concerned about the people he serves.
“I know that I'm just as apt to get it as everyone else,” says Skapura. “I just really don't want to be a spreader to children.”