HEMET, Calif. — A long white beard is only part of the requirement to be Santa Claus. It helps to also dress the part but that’s not a problem for Santa Ric Erwin, who is going on his 19th year as Santa. This year, he also has a new accessory — a face mask. Erwin doesn’t plan on greeting children in-person this year but he’s prepared, in case

He got hooked on performing as Santa in the early 2000s, after his wife, whom he refers to as Diva Claus, convinced him to dress up for a holiday charity event, handing out gifts to needy families. “My wife asked me on the way back to the car, how do you feel?” Erwin recalled. “And I said, 10 feet tall and bulletproof and don’t take me near tall buildings because I might try to fly.”

This year, many Santas aren’t going anywhere due to the pandemic. Erwin, who is the chairman and CEO of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, said he surveyed its 450 members and a third of them cancelled in-person events for the entire season. He says mixing children and Santa is just too much of a health risk.

“Children are our clientele but they are also notorious vectors for all things infectious,” he said. “By very nature of our age or underlying medical conditions, most Santas are in the at-risk category so if we are going to get those two groups together safely, we are going to have to be very creative.”

At least half of the Santas he surveyed will be offering visits of some sort. Erwin says popular ideas at shopping malls and stories include placing plexiglass between Santa and children or allowing families to take photos in front of a green screen and digitally merging it with a photo of Santa, who is in front of a separate green screen. He believes the most creative solution is from the Snow Globe Santa project, started by author Kathryn Burgess.

“Their idea was to place the performer inside a plastic bubble, a cocoon where he would be safe. And of course, to explain that to the children, they came up with an interesting story. Santa has been trapped this year in a snow globe by an elf magician’s accident,” Erwin said. “And I just think that is far and away the best solution because it doesn’t require parents to explain terms like public health official and viral spread. They just have a cute story that they can tell the kids.”

In a seasonal industry where Santas earn the bulk of their income two months out of the year, Erwin says losing work can be devastating. He opted out of doing in-person events to keep his family safe, especially after his father-in-law passed away in a hospital a few months ago. Erwin says it wasn’t related to the coronavirus but he died alone because hospitals aren’t allowing visitors during the pandemic. “I made a pledge to my mother-in-law, when we moved in here with her, that I would take zero chances of bringing the virus into this home this year,” he said. “Even if that meant giving up my entire Santa season.”

Erwin says he’ll also miss seeing children in-person this holiday season. “I’ve literally had kids who were on my lap in pictures, hand me their children now for pictures and that’s really going to leave a hole, personally speaking,” Erwin said.

Instead, he will be doing virtual visits from the safety of his home through a company called “Santa The Experience”. Even though visits will look different this year, Erwin is still hoping he can bring some much-needed holiday cheer.