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Christmas 2020: Will Santa have to social distance?

Santa in a grotto in Tunbridge Wells Image copyright Great Grottos
Image caption Children may have to stand back from Santa when posing for photos

The coronavirus pandemic has already seen off Easter parties and summer festivals - will Christmas outings suffer the same fate?

It may be June but lots of parents of young children will tell you Christmas planning starts early if you want to get tickets booked to your favourite Santa experience or pantomime.

But while many events have started taking bookings, the question remains whether or not they will go ahead if social distancing remains in place or the virus has a second peak.

A visit to a grotto, Christmas show or winter fair is an annual tradition for many families but the magic may feel somewhat lost if Santa has to wear a mask.

Image caption The Polar Express is a festive train ride on a heritage line

Some venues have already cancelled their festive events such as the Telford Steam Railway. The heritage line organises a Polar Express train service each year where families board a train decorated like the one in the animated film.

The trips attract hundreds of people, many of whom travel from faraway for the event. It is also a major fundraiser for the line which saw turnover go from £100,000 a year to more than £1m.

A statement from the board of directors said it would be "irresponsible to put any lives at risk".

"This is one of the hardest decisions we have had to make as this event has a massive impact to our railway business, but the health of you and your family is more important to us especially around the festive period."

Other cancelled events include the Christmas light switch on in Ely and the Whitby Christmas festival. However other venues are taking bookings for Christmas events such as Legoland in Windsor and the Snowdome in Tamworth, which hosts Santa's Winter Wonderland every year.

Organisers are yet to make a decision on festive markets such as the Frankfurt Christmas market held in Birmingham.

It's not that surprising that events like Christmas fairs which attract large groups of people in close proximity might be off the table but what about the annual visit to Santa. Will we see elves in PPE and will St Nick, as an older gentleman, have to shield in the North Pole?

Image copyright Great Grottos
Image caption Santa and his elves may have to audition via video call

Not according to Matthew Wise, managing director of Great Grottos, which runs more than 200 grottos in shopping and garden centres across the UK.

He said: "Great Grottos expects the Christmas grotto to move away from enclosed structures towards more expansive open staged settings with decorative backdrops."

He said this will allow staff and guests to social distance safely.

"If the downward trend in Covid-19 cases continues, garden centre grottos may prove to be the likely winners. They are able to delay their decision making on Christmas until the latest point and react more immediately."

Image copyright Great Grottos
Image caption Open plan grottos could replace enclosed structures this year

He added grotto managers will be watching the retail sector for the next month now that non-essential shops have reopened to see how consumers and retailers behave post lockdown.

In the meantime the recruitment of 500 Santas and elves has been pushed back to later in the year and some Father Christmases may audition via video call or using sanitised interviewing conditions.

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Image copyright UK Productions
Image caption Many theatre companies have put casting on hold while they await government guidance on social distancing

At theatres, crowds, artists and stagehands may find the annual pantomime is a very different experience going forward.

In Chesham, the Bucks Free Press reported that the local panto has been changed from Snow White to Sleeping Beauty to reduce the number of performers backstage.

Martin Dodd, producer and managing director of UK Productions, said the usual business of auditions, set building and costume making is on hold for his 10 scheduled shows.

"We work on pantomimes all year round in our workshops and warehouses as well as casting, marketing, writing scripts and designing new productions," he said.

"But with all of our premises closed and most of our staff furloughed this has obviously not been possible."

Image copyright UK Productions
Image caption Pantomime is often the first experience of theatre for young people, according to Martin Dodd

Auditions for ensemble members and juveniles are usually held from Easter with principal performers cast in July but while first round auditions can be done via video it is more difficult to put teams of dancers together while maintaining social distancing rules.

Mr Dodd added: "However the biggest question mark over Christmas is whether theatres will be able to open and whether we will be able to guarantee that we can keep the show on.

"Social distancing rules, even if it were to come down to one metre, means the theatres and producers will be losing money, but equally worrying is the risk of having to quarantine a whole company or theatre, which could mean cancellations of two weeks for every case.

"Such a scenario would simply be unsustainable financially for us as producers and also for the theatre."

In May the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced the appointment of a Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal to support the sector's recovery from the pandemic.

Mr Dodd said the industry needed financial support "both in terms of reduced audience numbers and as insurance against quarantine/isolation losses and/or a return to lockdown", as well as guidelines on how to rehearse safely.

There is also the cultural impact to consider, often pantomime is an introduction to the theatre for new and young audiences, adds Mr Dodd.

"Pantomimes are also so special in that they provide a way of bringing young and old together in a way not seen in any other country and given the isolation and separation felt by so many families this year wouldn't it be great if the family trip to the pantomime could still happen?"

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