BBC NEWS - Plexiglass, sanitiser and masks: US mall Santas prepare for Christmas

As the coronavirus rages in the US and health officials plead with Americans to stay home during the winter holidays, shopping malls are already hosting traditional visits with Santa Claus - except with festive new precautions in place.

Santa Claus will still fly his reindeer-driven sleigh from the North Pole to your local mall, say his metaphorical marketing elves, despite Covid-19 travel restrictions in place across the world.

But this year the iconic white beard might be more difficult for awestruck children to recognise behind a surgical mask or a plexiglass window.

As the US coronavirus death toll passes 286,000, and consumers worry about the danger of in-person shopping, malls and shops across the country are experimenting with creative ways to make the centuries-old holiday tradition as safe as possible.

"People don't want to give up that experience of watching their child's eyes light up when they get to meet the real Santa Claus if there's an opportunity to do that safely and responsibly," says Jack Wlezien, a spokesman for Bass Pro Shops, a hunting and fishing outdoor retail chain.

The company has made the experience 100% contactless, he says, placing jolly St Nick behind the so-called "Magic Santa Shield" - a glare-free, clear protective barrier that will allow families to safely chat with Santa before having their festive photo taken.

The plexiglass will be sanitised between each visit by a professional cleaning team and reservations will be required to avoid long queues, Mr Wlezien tells BBC News. Visitors will also be required to have their temperatures taken before entering "Santa's Wonderland".

These safety measures are necessary and won't affect the magic of the tradition, says professional Santa school founder Rick Rosenthal - better known as Santa Rick.

"You don't see masks and plexiglass when you're with Santa," says Santa Rick, who runs the Northern Lights Santa Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.

"The imagination, the hope and the inspiration are just so intense that they melt away."

The precautions are also crucial to protect Santas, who "are literally risking their lives to do their job this year," Santa Rick adds.

"Most are over 65 [years old] and 50 pounds (2.5 stone) overweight, which puts them with two strikes against them already," he says.

"This means they might also have high blood pressure, heart diseases, diabetes, lung disorders… They can have as many as six or seven immune-compromised situations."

This has prompted almost 40% of the Santas at Rick's agency, the National Santa Agency, to avoid in-person experiences with the public this year.

Brookfield Properties - a commercial real estate chain - has also boosted safety measures at its 130 shopping centres where Father Christmas will be dispensing his traditional holiday cheer.

The company held a dozen focus groups over the summer to determine the best way to keep the sacred tradition alive, says Brookfield Director of Portfolio Marketing Rocell Viniard.

Some Brookfield malls have opted for giant mock gift packages that will be set up in front of Santa and act as a protective barrier, or for a double-decker sleigh where he will be elevated in the back and kept safe behind a plexiglass.

Families sit in front of the sleigh, have their conversation with Santa and then turn for the photos so the youngsters will look like they're flying Santa's sleigh, Mrs Viniard says.

At the company's SoNo Collection Mall in Norwalk, Connecticut, a round piece of plexiglass will be placed in front of Santa so it looks like he is inside a snow globe.

The protective equipment was recently invented by Kathryn Burgess, a former elementary school teacher determined to save kids' cherished visits to Santa. This year, Mrs Burgess has also written a children's book explaining how it is that Santa came to be stuck in a snow globe in 2020.

Although kids won't be sitting on Santa's lap, the experience "will still be very intimate," says Mrs Viniard.

Mask requirements for both Santas and visitors at Brookfield malls will vary in accordance with state mandates, she says.

Mindy Tarantino, from Santee, California, recently took her three kids aged four, 11, and 14 to a behind-the-plexiglass Santa experience.

She couldn't bear the thought of her kids having to miss out on this too, she said, after they have already sacrificed so much this year.

The experience wasn't "weird at all" and her kids thought it was as magical as in previous years, she says.

"They did such a good job with the setup that by looking at the picture you can't even really tell there is a plexiglass," she added.

For those who don't feel comfortable going to malls, Macy's department store - which has been hosting children's visits with Santa since 1861 - has created an online experience that departs from their storied Santa tradition.

The magic of Santaland at Home, as it is called, "will safely bring the joy" of Christmas directly to people's homes, the company said in a press release.

Elves will take families through Santa's village and workshop, and eventually to Santa himself, where kids will be able to take a photo and recite their holiday wish list.

Brookfield also offers a virtual experience with its partner JingleRing, giving people an opportunity to chat with Santa from home for $25 (£19). Families will have the option to book a Santa that best fits them, including Spanish-speaking Santas, African-American Santas and Santas that know sign language.

Whether it's behind a plexiglass or a laptop screen, the festive Santa experience will help people feel that sense of normalcy that has long gone missing, says Santa Rick.

"More people than ever have been calling this year, and I knew they would," he says.

"Because we need Christmas in America, and we need Santa. Santa provides normalcy. It's the hope and inspiration that we need."