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Pandemic won’t stop Santa: Baltimore-area attractions finds ways to safely connect children with St. Nick

Even in the midst of a pandemic, Santa Claus is coming to town. Carrying on a generations-old tradition, Santa will be stationed in malls and at other events throughout the Baltimore region this holiday season. And though the nation’s top infectious disease expert has declared him immune from the coronavirus, Santa and his helpers will be abiding by public health guidelines to keep kids and their families safe.

At Towson Town Center, through Christmas Eve, families will be able to reserve a 15 minute time slot to meet with Santa from 6 feet away. Kids won’t be able to give Santa a hug this year or sit on his lap, but they’ll still be able to tell him what they want for Christmas while seated on benches that are decorated like gift boxes and other holiday props. Everyone will be required to wear a mask throughout the visit, and Santa and his helpers will get their temperatures checked on a daily basis, said Emily Brophy, the mall’s general manager.

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But if families don’t feel safe returning to the mall quite yet, Brophy says Santa will be more than happy to meet them over a video call, which extended family members can also join.

“We’re trying to provide multiple experiences for varying comfort levels, as well as making sure safety remains a top priority for the staff and the kids,” she said.

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An hour away, Westfield Annapolis also will host socially distanced Santa visits. Families will be able to sit on a bench about 8 feet in front of Santa Mike — who has been stationed at the mall for over 30 years — for a photo. Though the mall strongly encourages families to reserve a time for their visit, Steven Stavropoulos, Westfield’s general manager, says walk-ups will be permitted an hour before and an hour after reservations begin; reservations are generally available from late morning through early evening.

Capacity in the corridor where Santa will be set up will be limited to no more than six groups at a time.

Initially, Stavropoulos said, the mall scrapped all plans to host Santa this year. But as Christmas approached, he and his staff changed their minds.

“In the past, we made a lot of money on it and it was a great idea, but this year, we just accept the fact that we’re going to operate at a loss,” he said. “But we want to keep the magic happening here.”

Max McCurdy, 4, spend time at Santa Wonderland at Bass Pro Shops in Anne Arundel Mills mall behind plexiglass for a contactless Claus visit.
Max McCurdy, 4, spend time at Santa Wonderland at Bass Pro Shops in Anne Arundel Mills mall behind plexiglass for a contactless Claus visit. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

On Friday, Santa was to arrive by train to the B&O Railroad Museum’s Roundhouse in Washington Village, where he’ll be stationed beside a 35-foot tall Christmas tree until Jan. 3. There, from a green sleigh located more than 6 feet away, children will be able to tell him what they want for Christmas.

The sleigh will be disinfected between visits, and other high-touch surfaces in the museum will be cleaned regularly, said Kris Hoellen, the museum’s executive director. Masks are also required on-site, and personal hand sanitizer bottles are offered to those who would like one.

“We are of the definite view that you can’t have a year without a Santa,” Hoellen said. “We also actually believe, in some ways, that during a pandemic, the holiday spirit and magic of the holidays may be even more important this year than any other year — if it can be done safely.”

In a typical year, Aimee Sanfilippo, a data analyst who lives in Federal Hill, says she’d take her 3-year-old to see Santa at Marley Station Mall in Glen Burnie. But with coronavirus cases rising rapidly in Maryland and across the country, she said she doesn’t feel comfortable taking him into a big mall because he’s at the stage where he loves running his hands over everything.

A new holiday tradition might be afoot in her neighborhood. Shayna McConahy, an 18-year-old who lives with her mom across the street from Federal Hill Preparatory School, has set up a mailbox outside her house where kids can drop off their letters to Santa Claus. Mother and daughter also have dressed up a leftover Halloween skeleton as the Grinch, who’s sitting on a bench beside the mailbox.

Sanfilippo got choked up talking about the neighborhood decorations. It was just such a nice thing to do, especially in what has been such an awful year, she said.

McConahy’s Facebook post features a photo of Sanfilippo’s little one standing beside the Grinch — his current obsession — with a huge grin.

“It’s like the saying,” Sanfilippo said, “we’re all in this together.”

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