Turns out, COVID bubbles aren't just for professional athletes. When Santa Claus visited kids at the Tractor Swing in Collegedale over the weekend, he was safely ensconced inside a life-size snow globe.
"I knew we were going to need something outside the box," said Traci Bennett-Hobek, parks and recreation director for the city of Collegedale, which co-sponsored the Christmas-themed salute to farmers. "The bubble solved a lot of problems."
Keeping Santa safe has put many an elf on desperate missions this year. With COVID-19 rates rising and Santa at increased risk of infection thanks to his age and cookie diet, his helpers have scrambled to find ways to keep Santa front and center while safe and secluded for his photo-ops.
In many cases, Santa is hearing wish lists and even posing for photos virtually. Santas at Bass Pro Shop and Northgate and Hamilton Place malls are separated from visitors by clear acrylic shields. At Rock City, they're trying social distancing at an extra-large desk.
It's just one of several changes Rock City has made this year to safeguard guests, employees and its main emissary from the North Pole.
"We do not have live entertainment. We don't have the plethora of elves and other costumed characters. The things that rely on that very close, interpersonal exchange are not things that make sense for us this year from a safety perspective," said Susan Harris, president and CEO of the Lookout Mountain attraction.
Yet, Santa Claus found a way to be present. This year he greets children inside his workshop, "a really big, airy space," Harris said. "And with the volume of children that Santa keeps up with, he needs a really large desk for the naughty and nice lists."
At Bass Pro in East Ridge, general manager Bill Van Kampen said the two Santas that swap out photo duties appreciate having the acrylic shield as a safety measure because it allows this revered tradition to continue. For photos, children are seated in front of Santa, instead of on his lap, and Santa can hear what's on their wish lists.
"It's important, especially for kids," Van Kampen said. "With everything going on, there needs to be a sense of normalcy somewhere."
A spokesman for Cherry Hill Programs, which supplies the Santa setup at Northgate and Hamilton Place, said organizers are strictly adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, including the wearing of masks by Santa, staff and guests throughout the visit.
"Children will still be able to have a magical visit with Santa and share their wish list, but the experience will be contactless, and children will not sit on Santa's lap," said Matt Windt, chief marketing officer for the New Jersey-based company.
Mike Anderson, a Santa from LaFayette, Georgia, said he and his wife, Mary (a.k.a. Mrs. Claus), "canceled everything" they had on their schedule this year, including two parades, soon after the pandemic emerged. They have selectively agreed to a couple of events, including appearances for the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum's Polar Express train rides.
"We stand about 50 feet from the train when it pulls into the North Pole," Anderson said. "We're waving and greeting the kids, but that's as close as we get."
Anderson, 68, said he's dressed as Santa the past 17 years, the last seven professionally, and knows that parents don't let a child's cough or runny nose stand in the way of the prized annual photo.
"It was rare that I went through a season without at least catching a cold," he said.
Anderson said he fears his age and past health issues, including a heart attack, stroke and open-heart surgery, put him at increased risk of coronavirus complications, so he opted for caution this season.
"Most years we've done between 120 and 130 visits," he said. "We're kind of enjoying the slowdown this year."
Gordon Hewes, who portrayed Santa in Collegedale, said this was his first time donning the red suit. He hadn't even considered it until Bennett-Hobek and a colleague approached him in a Dollar Tree store and asked if he'd be willing to climb inside an inflatable snow globe in a Santa suit and pose for photos.
Bennett-Hobek had tried that same conversation starter with a couple of other candidates and gotten nowhere.
"My regular Santa was unavailable, and I'd already asked two other men," she said. "At this point, I was getting desperate. I turned a corner to go down this aisle, and there he was. He looked like Santa."
Hewes, 70, said he had about three months to grow his beard longer, and the Parks and Recreation Department supplied the suit. There was a settee where he could sit, scoop up snow and interact with kids on the other side of the plastic bubble.
"The blower that kept the plastic up was fairly loud, so it was hard to talk to them," he said. "That's why I got into 'Give me five.' I knew they'd understand that."
Email Lisa Denton at email@example.com.