San Diego Santas Bill Swank (with ruler and sanitizer) and Joe Mystic look forward to seeing socially distanced kids this holiday season. Photos via Swank and Mystic

San Diego lost Comic-Con, the San Diego County Fair and baseball crowds at Petco Park. But Santa? Never! Yes, Virginia, there will be Santa Claus in San Diego this year.

Seeing Santa at Christmas is “extremely important,” says veteran Saint Nick Joe Mystic. “Everybody is missing everything. The kids don’t get to go to Disneyland. They’re not getting their school things that they usually do.”

The 74-year-old added: “All the fun stuff is gone for them, so we need to keep something steady. We can’t look at it as everything is gone.”

Indeed the jolly old man will be very busy starting Friday as he visits malls throughout the county and joins private gatherings and parties.

But, of course, it won’t be quite the same. COVID-19 has also been making a relentless visit, so the key will be to make sure Santa stays healthy.

This means masks, social distancing and plexiglass.

Other options include in-person, cellphone apps, videos and phone calls with Santa.

Bill Swank, who has sat in for Santa at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park since 2002, has his bottle of sanitizer in one hand and a 6-foot ruler in the other. He will greet San Diegans at the Taste of December Nights on Dec. 4-6 at Inspiration Point in the Naval Hospital lot.

“No contact, wear your mask and wash your hands” and keep your distance, this Santa says.

Since the Santas aren’t spring chickens anymore, there is, of course, some concern about health.

Mystic had to turn down an appearance Friday, where multiple families would be present. When he said the kids couldn’t sit with him and had to wear masks, the client didn’t call back.

“I know a lot of Santas in my group that are not doing it at all this year because they are so worried,” said Mystic, who has health considerations.

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“I, on the other hand, feel that as long as I do it as safely as possible, it’s going to be fine,” he added.

Swank has been housebound since the pandemic started and is foregoing a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with children and grandchildren.

But a city official assured Swank that no children would be sitting on his lap or touching him. So Swank agreed.

Swank told his wife about the arrangement. “If Mrs. Claus is happy, I’m happy,” he said.

Most of the major shopping malls in the country contact with Cherry Hill Programs, who supply the Santas.

Malls taking part include Mission Valley Mall, Fashion Valley, Parkway Plaza, Chula Vista Mall, Westfield UTC, Westfield North County in Escondido, Otay Ranch Town Center, Westfield Mall Bonita, The Shoppes at Carlsbad and Carlsbad Premium Outlets.

Santa will be available at the malls from Nov. 27 to Dec. 24. Reservations are strongly recommended for a 15-minute visit with Santa by visiting whereissanta.com.

All San Diego Westfield centers (UTC, Mission Valley, Plaza Bonita and North County) will have a visit with Santa Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

People will be asked to select their location and the mall they plan to visit. A time slot will be selected and paid for online. Walk-in guests will be accepted on a space-available basis.

Photo packets range from $19.99 to $49.99, plus a processing fee.

Health protocols for the Santa visits are familiar:

  • All guests ages 2 and older must bring and wear face coverings over their nose and mouth.
  • Masks will not be seen as a substitute for physical distancing.
  • Children and parents must stay behind barriers, to keep with the no-touch rules.
  • If you are feeling sick, reschedule your visit.

In addition, Santas have to pass a health screening and have their suits regularly sprayed with a disinfectant between shifts.

Guests assume all risks, said the photo company’s website.

Santas also will be at Seaport Village, Del Mar Plaza, Hotel Del Coronado and Santee Lakes.

Surfin’ Santa had to cancel his gig at Seaport Village. However, a large likeness of him riding his surfboard will be there for photos.

Santa wears a cheery red mask during his stint at Mission Valley Mall. Photo by Chris Stone

But Seaport Village will still afford visitors an opportunity for photos sitting next to (but not on) Santa thanks to large sheets of Plexiglass to his right and left. Santa also will be wearing a face shield and gloves. Visitors must wear masks.

Sanitizer also will be at the ready for visitors at the 849 W. Harbor Drive set of shops.

At Del Mar Plaza, 1555 Camino Del Mar, Santa will be posted up high, sneaking down a chimney, while guests are seated in a sleigh below.

Reservations are $20 per family per session, with a portion of proceeds donated to Fuel the Frontline San Diego, which provides crucial funds for Del Mar restaurants and meals for local healthcare workers.

At the Hotel Del, Santa will pose in his sleigh as families take photos from 6 feet away — with the hotel’s famous turret as backdrop.

Reservations are required. Guests will get a 5×7 photo for $20.

Santa will be available from 4 -7 p.m. Nov. 28 and Dec. 5, 12, 19, 23 and 24.

A 35-foot Christmas tree, normally indoors, will be in the center of the hotel’s beachfront Windsor Lawn due to renovation. Also, Skating by the Sea will not be available this year because of the pandemic.

At Santee Lakes, Santa will come to town from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6, at the Lake 1 Gazebo, where a physically distanced meeting and photo opportunity is available.

Reservations are encouraged, but walk-up visits are available throughout the day based on availability.

The 5×7 photos go for $12 or two 5x7s for $20. Facial coverings are required. Gate entrance is $6, and no pets are allowed.

Reluctant to meet Santa in person? You can arrange a virtual visit from the North Pole via Zoom meetings or Internet sites.

A variety of companies including Cherry Hill Productions, JingleRing Live, Santa’s Club, and Santa the Experience.

Pre-recorded videos and live visits are offered for a variety of prices, depending on the duration of the visit. Virtual photos, in which you upload a photo and Santa is added to the photo, are also sold.

A free visit with Santa is offered at 3 p.m. Dec. 13 with singing, dancing and comedy for 40 minutes thanks to Victoria On Stage Musical Theatre Society. Register here. Donations are accepted.

Another option is calls from Santa via an app, such as Portable North Pole.

Regardless of the type of contact, Santa visits won’t be the same, Mystic said.

“I don’t think it’s as satisfying to any of us as it is doing it in person, not for the kids, not for the parents, not for me,” Mystic said.

“It’s going to be funny to see the pictures that are going to be in the albums for this year. There will be all of these pictures of Santa with the kids, Santa with the kids, Santa with the kids, and then in 2020, they’re wearing masks,” said the popular magician/Santa.

In addition, Mystic, who lives in Clairemont, said he expects only half what he usually makes playing the jolly man each year.

Mystic is counting on parents to keep him safe by setting the no-touching ground rules ahead of time.

And sometimes children ask him for things he just can’t give them such as bringing estranged parents back together or returning a military brother from an overseas tour, he confided.

But the Santas’ passion is not dimmed.

Swank strives to make kids feel special.

“I really enjoy being Santa,” he said. “Having kids inches away, looking you right in the face. They believe it is all real.”

But this year, 6 feet away.

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