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What it’s like to be Santa Claus in a pandemic

Eric Webb
Guy Benson works as the Santa Claus at Bass Pro Shops in Round Rock, seen here on Nov. 19. "We're trying to do the best we can with the weird times we're having," Benson says.

Santa Claus caught the coronavirus in March.

Around the time Austin and Travis County shut down this spring to stem the spread of COVID-19, Guy Benson found himself in bed for four days with a fever. He hasn’t suffered side effects since, aside from fatigue for a couple of weeks — “I’m one of the lucky ones,” he says.

That’s proved especially fortunate come November. See, Benson is one of the area’s hardest-working Santa Clauses.

He’s worked so many yuletide gigs that you might start to believe he’s the one, true, omnipresent Kris Kringle. For 15 years, he was involved in Operation Blue Santa, including the Chuy’s Children Giving to Children Parade. He’s brought the magic of Christmas to the Austin Trail of Lights in Zilker Park since 2012. You can catch him at shopping hot spots like the Arboretum in North Austin and Bass Pro Shops in Round Rock. He and his partner, Deborah Parsons, also founded Silver Santa, which brings gifts and cheer to seniors in nursing homes and VA centers.

“You may have seen me here or there or everywhere,” he says.

Benson sometimes works three or four events a day during the Christmas season. His popularity grew so much that he and Roberts started recruiting other Santas through their Red Santa organization to fulfill requests they couldn’t get. And in 2013, Time magazine named Benson one of the 11 best Santas in the U.S.

“He gives more than he takes, always,” says Parsons, who also transforms into the hoop-skirted, petticoat-wearing Mrs. Claus to Benson’s Santa for many of his appearances.

In other words, being Austin’s Santa Claus is hard work. And like almost everyone else in the world, the coronavirus pandemic has made it harder for Benson to do his job. Even amid an uncertain and escalating public health crisis, some in the industry say demand for a visit from St. Nick is outpacing the supply this year. With new safety procedures in place, Benson and others like him are still trying to make Christmas work, well, work.

A jolly line of work

Benson remembers his grandmother taking him as a kid to see Santa at Sears in Capital Plaza. For the past 25 years, he’s put his own natural beard to similar professional use. “I’m considered a young Santa at 64 years of age,” he says. First doing occasional events with kids and pets, Benson gradually dipped his boot into the Father Christmas biz, but just like in “Field of Dreams,” he says that if you build it, they will come. He got hooked on the Santa life.

“I have a naturally white beard I was blessed with. It’s extremely long. You can’t hide something like that,” he says. “I have the personality, I’m told, to go along with it, very jolly. Sadly, I’m starting to gain the weight to go along with it, too. I know that’s part of the deal, but the cookies are really good. It was a natural calling. The more I was invited in, the more I wanted to do it.”

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Benson lives out toward Bastrop these days, but he’ll take a sleigh ride most places in the U.S. for the right job. Normally, you can find him all over Central Texas and the Hill Country, and sometimes the holiday season takes him from San Antonio to the coast, from Waco to Dallas.

When you think Santa, you think tykes on laps. Over the years, Benson remembers getting down on the ground with a child who was crying one time. Then there was the boy who didn’t believe in Santa but opened up to the magic after seeing Benson at multiple locations in one year. It’s these joyous interactions that he loves most about the gig.

But this year, there’s no one sitting on Santa’s lap.

In addition to fighting his own battle with COVID-19, Benson is a former first responder, and he still has friends on the front lines. The pandemic is not far from his mind. “The last thing we want to do is expose someone to this for a picture,” he says.

Some Santas have underlying medical concerns, he adds, like heart problems or diabetic complications. Benson knows a few in the “brotherhood,” as he calls them, who have said they need to take a year off out of caution: “We've lost over half our Santas this year.”

And it’s difficult to find the right man for the job, he says, the ones that have “the Santa look and the twinkle in their eyes.”

“Those are the ones,” he says, “that we're sad to see them having to say, ‘You know what, I really can't do it this year. I’m a little bit too much of a high risk.’”

The business of cheer

Mitch Allen, founder of Fort Worth-based Hire Santa, knows how that holly jolly job search goes. He started his business, a Santa placement agency of sorts, sending bearded merrymakers out to events all over the world — Austin, Dubai, you name it — since 2012.

“We’re always hunting for more Santas,” he says. “We run out every year.” He has only about a dozen folks operating in the Austin area right now; Benson is one of the Santas with whom he works. (As it turns out, the professional Santa world is a small one.)

Before the holiday season started, Allen worried that bookings would be down 90% due to the pandemic. In fact, he says Hire Santa has seen a “huge increase” in demand over the past month. People don’t want to take their kids to the malls right now, he thinks, and so in places like Austin, they’re looking for drive-bys and home visits. He says he’s still seen some cancellations, but he allows that everything will be dependent on how the pandemic situation develops.

“Santa is needed this year more than ever before,” Allen says, as people seek a “sense of tradition and what is normal.”

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But nothing is normal right now. Texas cases of COVID-19 have climbed to record levels in recent weeks. Related hospitalizations have gone up since October. Austin health officials recently moved the city up to stage 4 coronavirus guidelines, highlighting concerns about ICU capacity. Under stage 4, all residents are encouraged to avoid social gatherings with people who do not live in their household. Higher-risk individuals are urged to stay home.

“Santas are in a high-risk group for negative outcomes,” Allen says. “We want to keep Santa safe.” He likes working with bigger brands on events, because he thinks they understand the health stakes.

Some people have emailed Hire Santa to request private visits with no masks, and with kids sitting on Santa’s knee. “We’re not allowing those situations to happen,” Allen says.

‘We’re trying to do the best we can’

Benson lays out the new world for a Santa like him in detail. A lot of stores, like the Bass Pro Shops he works with, have their own protocols in place to meet health regulations, he says. For those visits, he usually wears a face shield that covers him from forehead to chin. He’s separated from the visiting kids by a plexiglass barrier that’s specially arranged to eliminate glare from photos. The children wear masks while they’re telling Santa that they’ve been good (or maybe bad, if they’re feeling honest).

“The kids are so resilient on this,” Benson says. “They take care of their own mask, even the young ones that are 4 or 5 years of age.” The children are allowed to take the mask off briefly for the photo, and sometimes they forget to smile for the camera, he says.

The usual pandemic procedures are in place: “Santa social distances,” Benson says, and the space is sanitized regularly with disinfectant. He also emphasizes that his suit can be cleaned by washing machine — most Santa suits are dry clean only, but he launders his every day.

“We’re trying to do the best we can with the weird times we’re having,” Benson says.

Like most entertainers in 2020, Santa does business virtually, too. Benson, who took on FaceTime visits even before the pandemic, says he’s done about 40 or 50.

In 2020, “kids are comfy FaceTiming with grandparents, or a team meeting for school. In some ways, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary to talk to Santa (virtually),” says Allen of Hire Santa.

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And parades are big this season, too, Benson says, but not the kind that draw huge crowds of strangers into the streets. The Chuy’s parade, for example, was canceled. Homeowners associations will hire Benson to drive around their neighborhoods, he says, so families can sit at home and watch him go by.

For private appearances this year, Mrs. Claus lays the groundwork: Parsons sends out a list of required protocols ahead of the visit, including mask use and physical distancing requirements.

Santa won’t get to visit nursing homes this year for Silver Santa. Instead, Benson says, bags of gifts will be dropped off at their front doors.

At Bass Pro Shops, Santa’s workshop lies behind black curtains. This year’s set-up is about a quarter of the size it usually is, says store co-manager Chris Forrester. Smaller equals more manageable. A few hundred families come through over the course of a week, and Santa’s working under a reservation system. It took about two and half days to get the plexiglass angled just right, in order to eliminate glare, Forrester says.

One silver lining: The added barrier makes it easier for kids who are a little scared of Ol’ St. Nick.

“You get a lot of screamers,” Forrester says.

But even with barriers, masks and omnipresent hand sanitizer, the wonderland at Bass Pro Shops looks mostly like you’d expect. There’s white fluff everywhere. Just to the right of Santa’s chair, a pair of elf legs stick out of one of the faux snow banks. Giant, shimmering ornaments hang from the ceiling. There’s a reindeer keeping watch.

Barring illness, another shutdown or a “major change” in pandemic regulations, Benson says he’ll be out there, red suit and all. This year, he started working Nov. 6. His first day off is Dec. 26. It’s exhausting, he says, but “the rewards you get out of it are amazing.”

A lot of the kids who come to visit Santa ask him what he wants for Christmas.

“I want a world without plexiglass,” Benson replies, “and to not have to wear a face mask. I want the world to be at peace with all this, and back to a normal routine for everybody.”

Kids can't sit on Santa's lap this year at Bass Pro Shops because of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, they sit on a bench with a plexiglass barrier separating them from Santa.