BELLEVILLE, Ill — As the pandemic continues, visiting Santa's helpers may look different again this year.
COVID isn't just changing the way we interact... It's also impacting a holiday tradition and creating a shortage.
As Santa works hard in the North Pole, here in the St. Louis area, his helpers are trying to keep up.
Nationwide, there's a shortage of Santa Claus entertainers. Overall, there's a 15% decrease.
Locally, one of these professional impersonators is Belleville retired fire captain Jared Viviano. Most of the time he's DJing or working as an insurance agent.
But when the season starts, it's time to suit up.
"My Santa season started as early as September 8th this year," he says.
He's worn the suit since 1994.
This year, he's the Santa entertainer for the Belleville parade after Thanksgiving and works at the Belleville Santa's House. He also does photography sessions at Luttrell's Photography, which is called Santa's Workshop.
Viviano notes, as a 42-year-old, he's one of the younger guys in the business.
"Many of the guys' ages average range is between around mid 50 to 70s," he shares.
He explains most entertainers love the joy this job brings and it shows in the retention.
An average career in this profession is almost 20 years.
Yet, the pandemic stopped the booming business in its tracks.
With the 15% dip, Viviano says, "Some Santas are retired and elderly and at-risk so they don't want to risk that. Some got COVID and it did cause them issues to not continue. And unfortunately, we lost some brothers in red to COVID."
They see visitors of all ages, but the average age is four to eight.
He understands their concerns, admitting he's concerned himself, even if he's vaccinated and boosted.
"I'm concerned about giving someone COVID," Viviano admits.
Meanwhile, this year, with vaccines in the mix more events are popping up.
"The demand this year is supposed to be up 120%. We just don't have the guys to do it or we're all booked," Viviano adds.
However, there aren't any shortages at Belleville Santa House, Eckert's in Belleville, and the Mid Rivers Mall, St. Clair Square, South County, and West County Center.
But each location may have different protocols.
"You may not see your Santa masked, you may see them at a distance unmasked from you, they may be unmasked and you could approach them and it depends on the situation," Viviano notes.
At Eckert's in Belleville, mask up until it's photo time. At one location, Santa will be inside a snow globe. The kids can sit in front of it to talk to him and take a picture.
Amanda Morgan, Marketing Director at Eckert’s says, "We want to make sure Santa stays safe, as well as the families."
Belleville Santa's House is also mask-required for guests.
At Abigail's Gift Boutique in St. Louis city over the weekend, it had a Santa entertainer outside so people could unmask, if they wanted. Plus, he was vaccinated.
Owner Fischer says, "We can't have another one though, he is booked up like crazy!"
As for Mid Rivers Mall, St. Clair Square, South County and West County Center, it's the guests choice pending local and regional mandates and CDC best practices.
Chris Landtroop is Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Cherry Hill Programs. They work with over 670 locations across the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico, including St. Louis County.
She adds, "We are so excited for Santa magic just to be back. Last year, we were not in as many physical and in-person locations, as we are this year. And there was plexiglass and some locations where six feet of social distancing."
As for Viviano, he's prepared for it all, knowing his purpose is to spread joy.
"I wanted to be the person to bring joy to other people," he exclaims.
The best piece of advice from organizers is to get reservations in quickly because they are booking up.
Plus, call ahead so you can see what protocols may or may not be in place.
For Eckert's, Morgan recommends making a reservation online to have breakfast with Santa or to take pictures.
Breakfast with Santa
Eckert’s Country Restaurant | Saturdays and Sundays from November 20 - December 19
- Join Santa for breakfast at the Eckert’s Country Restaurant. The meal will include scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, fried potatoes, fruit, biscuits and sausage gravy and a beverage (not including alcoholic drinks). In addition to breakfast, each child can tell Santa his or her holiday wish, take a photo with Santa and decorate a sugar cookie with frosting and sprinkles. Plus, there will be a holiday story read during the event and each child will receive a special gift from Santa. Breakfast will be served from 8 a.m. - noon. Reservations are required to attend. Reservations are $22 per person and can be purchased here.
Photos with Santa in a Snow Globe
Garden Center at Eckert’s Farm | Tuesday - Friday from November 30 - December 23
- Santa will sit inside of a decorated snowglobe, so guests can sit on a bench in front of the globe to take their photos with Santa. Photos are $22 per family which includes one photo and additional photos can be purchased on-site for $10 per photo. Reservations can be made here.