Eastwood Mall Santa

Creative Planning, Volunteers Help Keep Santa in the Valley

NILES, Ohio — It’s a staple during the holiday season to see not only tinsel and light displays, but also Santa Claus.

More than a year after the onset of COVID-19, industries are still navigating a “new normal,” including folks who dress up as the jolly elf.

In the Mahoning Valley, there hasn’t been a staff shortage of Santas, with people stepping up to the plate to see children, but there have been new practices to ensure safety to both themselves and children.

At the Eastwood Mall in Niles, planning has ensured Santa is available to children for pictures and quick conversations.

“We work with a couple different companies” to bring Santa to the mall, said Joe Bell, spokesman for the Cafaro Co., which owns the Eastwood Mall Complex.

The regular roster of Santas were assured there would be safeguards in place to reduce the amount of close interaction that could be potentially considered dangerous, he said.

Last year, there was a Santa shield, a large plexiglass shield separating Santa and children that wasn’t visible in pictures, Bell said.

This year, there is a bench in front of Santa, allowing for him to talk with kids and take a photo.

The change is welcomed by Greg Greathouse, who plays Santa at the Eastwood Mall, for a couple reasons.

“Knock on wood, the distance has kept me from getting a cold this year,” he said.  The social distancing adds a layer of protection, too, Greathouse said, on top of being vaccinated.

In between each child, the bench – and even Santa’s hands – are sanitized, he said.

These are measures that society may have to get used to, Greathouse said, as scientists say COVID-19 will be around for years. “We have to adapt to it – wear masks, social distance,” he said.

Down in Mahoning County at the Southern Park Mall, Santa is found in Center Court, with precautions just as important as the elf himself.

“At Southern Park Mall, health and safety is our top priority,” said Christina Cleary, director of marketing for Washington Prime Group, which owns and manages the mall.

“We are focused on providing a safe and enjoyable experience for everyone. In addition to our already rigorous cleaning practices, we have hand sanitization stations located at the Santa set and throughout the town center,” she said.

Avery, 8, and Michael, 6, Nemkovich, of Liberty sit with Santa Claus while they have their picture taken at the Eastwood Mall in December.

Keeping a new tradition created last year to ensure kids saw Santa was the Western Reserve Joint Fire District in Poland.

Played by a rotation of volunteers, Santa has been able to keep up with appearances in Poland Township and Village, largely from a safe distance.

For the second year running, Poland has hosted a drive-thru allowing cars to stop and see Santa, who also goes through neighborhoods in the township and village. The team at WRJFD was prepared to face COVID-19, not only as first responders but also on a recreational front.

“We took it on,” said fire Chief Chip Comstock. “We used to do an in-house Santa, but things changed last year. With the drive-thru, people don’t have to get out of the cars. It works well,” he said.

The fire district also takes Santa around different neighborhoods throughout Poland, giving him a ride in one of the vehicles as part of Poland Express. Earlier in December for a week, a sleigh went through Poland, escorted by the fire department. The drive-thru was held at the end of the week, coinciding with lighting the green in the Village, Comstock said.

To make sure more children see Santa next year, the fire district is already mapping out more neighborhoods that will be incorporated within the route, Comstock said.

Santas are in high demand this year and was part of the discussion of how to bring Santa to the community, Comstock said.

In nearby Lowellville, there was a Santa parading around the village, also earlier in December.

Luckily, there was a volunteer the community could count on, said Rosyln Torella, a resident who helps plan recreation within Lowellville.

“If we didn’t have (the volunteer), we’d be worried,” she said, referring to the shortage of Santas this year.

Taking precautions related to COVID-19, the Christmas celebration earlier this month looked slightly different than in years past.

“Normally we bring kids inside the town hall building, but this year they sat next to Santa” outside, Torella said.

More than 90 children attended holiday festivities that included seeing Santa, she added, nothing the fire department was also instrumental in making the events happen.

Just like in Poland, Santa also rode around through Lowellville, providing a chance for the 1,000 residents to say hello from the comfort of their porches or yards, Torella said.

While communities and shopping centers continue to navigate best practices during the pandemic, a lot of fears have subsided, Bell said.

“People are learning to live with COVID-19,” he reflected, noting that seeing Santa is once again a Christmas tradition. “I think things are slowly going back to normal as much as they can.”

Pictured at top: A rotation of Santas, including Greg Greathouse, has helped against a Santa shortage this year.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.