Seeing Santa during a pandemic: Photo-ops cancelled, virtual visits continue

Nothing says Christmas like the obligatory photo of the kids — sometimes squealing with glee, sometimes shrieking in terror — on Santa’s knee at the mall. But the COVID-19 restrictions announced by the province last week have forced Santa to cancel photo-ops at some shopping centres effective Wednesday. And if you did manage to sneak in a photo before the plug was pulled, it’s likely this year’s Santa photo features masks so this global pandemic will be preserved for posterity.

Like other parents of young children, this reporter has been frantically searching for COVID-friendly Santa availabilities in Greater Victoria so that one perfect snap could adorn the Christmas cards sent to my family in Ontario. My 17-month-old first met Santa last year, once at the Cottage at Uptown and once in Toronto’s Distillery District with grandma. She seemed generally unfazed by Saint Nick, which is really the best you can hope for with an infant. I was curious to see how she’d react this year, armed with more free will and a toddler’s innate unpredictability.

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I began the search in mid-November. I had snagged a spot at the Mayfair Shopping Centre, where Santa’s grotto was to be featured outside. However, a few hours after provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced that events, even outdoors, were now verboten, Mayfair sent an email saying that, unlike Santa’s reindeer, the photos wouldn’t fly.

“Boy, last week was a sad week for us,” said Laura Poland, the shopping centre’s general manager.

“It was an extremely difficult decision. We felt due to the evolution of the current pandemic situation, it wasn’t safe to be running even the modified program that we did have in place. It was in our opinion, bordering on an event gathering and as you know event gatherings are not permitted in British Columbia.”

In the effort of spreading Christmas cheer, Mayfair sent a $25 gift card to anyone whose reservation had been cancelled.

Until Wednesday, you could have gotten in to see Santa at the Hillside Centre but due to a revised provincial health order designating Santa photos as “events,” the photos have been suspended until further notice.

Santa was previously making an appearance at the Cottage at Uptown shopping centre, but he was masked and six feet away from his admirers, who are also required to wear masks in the photo unless under the age of two.

Due to the popularity of the big guy in red, I went for the option of a family photo inside the picturesque Cottage without Santa, and we had our photo taken on Tuesday, the day before Uptown decided to cancel until further notice.

Like everyone else, Santa has also embraced Zoom this year and the Westshore Town Centre will be organizing one-on-one virtual visits with Santa where kids can make sure they’re on the nice list.

“Christmas is not cancelled,” said Kelly McClure, marketing manager at Westshore Town Centre.

“It was important for the safety of our shoppers and of course Santa Claus himself to do something that still allowed that one-on-one connection for kids in our community. It’s just about making those memories and having that connection.”

McClure said the video chats allow kids to spend up to five-minutes of quality time with the big guy in red. The Zoom calls are being offered for free between Nov. 22 and Dec. 24 and can be booked at westshoretowncentre.com.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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