Santa photos continue in Fresno CA amid COVID-19 pandemic

Like everything else in 2020, visits with Santa Claus will look different this holiday season…

Like everything else in 2020, visits with Santa Claus will look different this holiday season because of COVID-19.

The pandemic has made sitting on Santa’s lap a no-no, but a number of businesses that offered photos with St. Nick in the past are forging ahead with other ideas. Among them: Superimposing Santa into images, socially-distant masked visits, and video calls with the man in red.

Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County’s interim health officer, shared the following statement Wednesday:

“At this time, the Fresno County Department of Public Health recommends that residents avoid all indoor gatherings, including holiday related events or meetings.

“Holiday photos may be held outdoors, with individuals socially distanced. All businesses conducting photography events need to include screening of employees and participants for symptoms and temperatures, physically distancing while waiting, scheduled times for photos, one-way traffic flow, and sanitizing and disinfecting common areas between uses.”

During a call with media Friday, Vohra also cautioned, “make sure that if you are going to participate in that tradition, that you do it safely so that you’re not contributing to increased cases related to that really fun activity.”

Operators in the area offering Santa visits and photos say they’re working to prevent the spread of coronavirus by doing things like monitoring for virus symptoms, mask wearing, social distancing, and increased sanitation.

Will Fresno businesses move Santa visits outside?

Operators made their plans before Fresno County was demoted Monday to a more restrictive tier for business reopenings because of a rise in COVID-19, returning to purple from red in the state’s color-coded “Blueprint for a Safer Economy.”

The Bee followed up with operators this week. Only one business in this story, Holiday Magic Studios – River Park, responded Wednesday afternoon to Vohra’s new statement, which notes photos should be taken outside.

Its chief operating officer, Nico DeYoung, said Holiday Magic Studios isn’t planning changes because its “health and safety plans already adhere to these guidelines.”

DeYoung justified this by adding “our studio is located outdoors directly in front of Edwards Theater” – although its 10-by-27-foot studio has four enclosed walls.

Below is more information about some current Santa plans in Fresno and Visalia:

‘Santa magic’ and technology join forces

Holiday Magic Studios – River Park didn’t want families to have to deal with a socially-distanced visit with Santa, so they got new technology to make the jolly gentleman appear in holiday photos in real time. They’re calling it “Santa magic.”

The business is planning to have people pose beside an empty seat in their decorated studio in north Fresno. They then instantly see Santa in their photos via a screen beside a masked photographer.

“The magic cracks kids up to see them participating in a story,” said Peter DeYoung, its chief executive officer.

Before and after photos, families will watch a recorded video of Santa talking about being stuck in the North Pole until Christmas due to a snow storm, and receive confirmation he knows their wish list.

Photo sessions begin Nov. 21. Online reservations are required. Peter DeYoung said customers will be allowed to take off their masks for photos. He said the company normally photographs between 4,500 and 5,000 families with Santa and early reservations were in high demand.

Sierra Vista Mall in Clovis also lists superimposed Santa photos on its website via the New Jersey-based Cherry Hill Programs by uploading photos of people and pets online.

Mask up for mall Santa photos

Fashion Fair mall in Fresno, Sierra Vista Mall, and the Visalia Mall in the South Valley are among those still planning to offer in-person visits with Santa. Masks are required and visits with Santa will be socially distant and without physical contact.

Brian Maloney, senior marketing manager for Fashion Fair, said there will be some kind of barrier between guests and Santa to help ensure adequate social distance is maintained.

The malls list Cherry Hill Programs as managing their Santa events.

“Guests will not sit on Santa’s lap during their interaction,” the company said in a statement, “but will still have the opportunity to engage in conversation and a magical experience with Santa, while maintaining physical distance.”

Cherry Hill, which operates holiday experiences in over 700 retail locations, has more information about what guests can expect during a Santa visit on its website. Guests are “strongly encouraged” to make advanced reservations. Walk-in guests will be accepted if space is available.

Santa photos begin Nov. 27 at Fashion Fair and Visalia Mall, and Dec. 3 at Sierra Vista.

Holiday video calls with St. Nick

Sierra Vista also lists live video calls with Santa on its website via Cherry Hill, and Fig Garden Village lists a similar service via JingleRing.

Other options include recorded personalized messages, and listening to a story read by the Clauses.

“The ideals of unconditional love, generosity, kindness, and empathy for others; that is the Spirit of Santa celebrated by people across all cultures, countries, and languages,” a statement from JingleRing reads. “We believe every child should get to experience the wonder and magic of Santa, especially in 2020, from the comfort and safety of their homes.”

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Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and 11 first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.
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