NEW YORK (AP), Santa Claus is back, but he warns that he will not be too careful as he navigates the pandemic.

“Be smart. Be kind. Be kind.

In spite of a decline in Jolly Old Elfs — approximately 15% fewer in one large database — Chesney has been busier than ever at his North Pole in Moorestown in New Jersey. He quickly sold the 4,500 appointments at the photo studio, where he worked, to be seated with him and seven other Santas from the stable.

They are among Santa’s bravest with full-contact visits including lap sitting, but Chesney is still wearing a mask until the photos are taken.

While Santas may not be wearing masks or protective snow globes this year, it seems like 50-50 that they aren’t quite ready to receive hugs, whispers of secret wishes in their ears, or children sobbing on their knees.

Santa Clauses may remain behind safety barriers that were put up last year. The big man at Minnesota’s Mall of America will be kept in a log cabin behind the window. Guests will sit on benches in front of him. For the outdoor retailer Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s locations, benches will be used. Some stores have plastic partitions for Santa’s photo ops.

Santa hosts and other retailers offer the option to have no or complete contact even if distance requirements are not in place. Many require or encourage reservations to be made online in order to reduce the waiting time.

According to GlobalData Retail’s managing Director Neil Saunders, more than 10 million households in the United States visited Santa in a store or mall in 2019. He said that 73% of these households also visited nearby stores or restaurants. According to the company’s research, 6.1 million households visited Santa last year. However, there were fewer malls and retailers that offered the Santa in person. 62% of those visitors ate nearby and shopped nearby.

According to Saunders, Santa is expected to visit approximately 8.9 million households this year. Virtual visits are still an option.

He said that “Lingering fears about the virus, and continuing restrictions in certain states and localities continue as a barrier to Santa visiting in person”,

Chris Landtroop is optimistic as a spokesperson for Santa vendor Cherry Hill Programs. The new vaccinations being offered to children aged 5-11 years old will be a great help.

“Santa is back, and we are so excited about that.” “Last year was extremely difficult,” Landtroop stated.

Santas are sourced by the company throughout the year to serve 800 malls, big box stores, and other locations. There is also an option for no-contact visits. Cherry Hill requires that all employees and Santas are vaccinated. Those with exemptions must be tested frequently.

Landtroop stated, “At the end the day we want guests to feel at ease.”

Since nearly two decades, Luther Landon has provided the Santa Experience at Mall of America, Bloomington, Minnesota. He came up with the idea of a log cabin last year but it was closed down due to the pandemic. He shifted to virtual Santa, and this year he will offer both.

He said that it was irresponsible to ignore the pandemic and pretend everything is back to normal. We’ve placed microphones in Santa’s ears so he can hear perfectly. Knowing so many Santas, I know that most of them would be reluctant to return to the pre-pandemic era. We also have others who are like me, but I don’t really care. Both of these groups are what is happening in the country.

After he retired from Army, Russell Hurd has been playing Santa in Royse City since 2017. His red suit will be worn with his very real, long white beard at Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center in Dallas. He is not able to make eye contact with the crowds so masks are necessary. He longs for it to end.

It’s still meaningful for Santas to see it as it was. I mean, we’re human beings. Hurd stated that we desire this interaction but for the moment we do our best.”

Hurd is not vaccinated, and tests for COVID regularly.

“I know many unvaxxed Santas all across the country. He said that it was not only Texas.

Count American Dream is a 3 million-square-foot mega mall in East Rutherford New Jersey that offers distanced Santa. He will be skating on the indoor rink along with visitors and also jogging with guests in pink golf carts.

Santa will be at Macy’s making his Christmas list, and then checking it twice, from behind a desk with guests sitting on the opposite side.

Kathleen Wright, senior manager of Macy’s Branded Entertainment said that everyone should keep their masks on during visits. “Santa is a Macy’s tradition from 1862, so we’re thrilled that we can continue this tradition safely.”

Brookfield Properties owns Oakbrook Center in suburban Chicago. Santa will be visiting the mall with a motorhome and his fans. Santa will be visiting 117 of the 132 malls Brookfield has in 43 states. While the company will comply with safety protocols, it will not distance anyone who asks. CBL Properties, with 63 malls across 24 states, offered Santa visits safely from a distance last year.

Stacey Keating, a spokesperson for CBL, stated that this year’s Santa experience will be more traditional. Visitors who want to be on Santa’s lap, or Santa’s bench, will have the option. Except for a local mandate, masks are not required on the set or in photos.

Bonus: Santa Cares is a reservation-only event for those with sensory sensitivities or who find the traditional experience overwhelming.

Santa has suffered other losses due to the pandemic.

Stephen Arnold, the 71 year-old leader of IBRBS (formerly known as the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas), said that his organization of approximately 2,000 Santas/Mrs. Clauses had lost 57 Santas due to COVID.

Arnold, a long-standing Santa, said that most of us are obese, diabetic and have heart problems. He is available both online and in person in Memphis. “It’s clear that we are prime targets for COVID.”