The pandemic has made Santa Claus a public health hazard. Against the explicit advice of the health officials, he visits homes and malls that put him in contact with many people. That long beard probably renders any mask porous and ineffective. His workshop is full of elves making toys in close quarters. Though spry, he is elderly, putting him at personal risk of developing a severe case (8 out of 10 coronavirus-related deaths in the United States have been adults ages 65 and older). His body mass index has been described as “a bowl full of jelly” (researchers have found an association between a BMI over 40 and higher covid-19 death rates, particularly among men).

“Santa’s safe,” Mitch Allen has been telling families. Allen, a Santa Claus performer and owner of HireSanta.com, a Santa staffing agency, explains that St. Nick has been “quarantining at the North Pole.”

Okay. But with coronavirus cases and deaths persisting at jaw-dropping levels, children who want to convey their Christmas wishes directly (who can rely on the mail these days, anyway?), but don’t want to kill Santa or be infected by him, will have to do so through a plexiglass divider, or an inflatable plastic bubble, or a computer screen.

The Santas did not think it would turn out like this. Back in the spring, visions of an accelerated vaccine danced in their heads. The hundreds of professional performers across the country believed, thanks to their role interfacing with the community and their morale-boosting holiday cheer, that they could be among the first to get it — a lobbying feat they pulled off in 2009, when the H1N1 virus was wreaking havoc on the holiday season.

That year, “we were able to provide enough inoculated Santas that, to my knowledge, we saved every corporate and municipal event in the country, and countless private parties,” says Ric Erwin, a Santa performer and chairman of the Fraternal Organization of Real Bearded Santas. In August, Erwin was invited to testify to the Department of Health and Human Services committee about the Santa community’s need to be among the vaccine’s earliest recipients. He was soon contacted by Michael Caputo, a Trump administration official who has courted controversy by accusing scientists in his own agency of “sedition.” The Wall Street Journal reported in October that Caputo had offered the vaccine to Santas in exchange for them participating in a taxpayer-funded public health campaign to promote the vaccine, which Caputo reportedly had suggested would be ready by October. But “he was pretty much acting rogue, and all the information that I had passed on to the Santa world was just a smoke cloud full of bull crap,” says Erwin.

The program was scrapped. Santa found himself embroiled in a political scandal. Caputo found himself on the Naughty List. Erwin feels the episode has left his reputation — and that of the Fraternal Organization of Real Bearded Santas — all tarnished with ashes and soot, so to speak.

“We unknowingly found ourselves dealing with a clan of liars,” says Erwin. “That, I regret tremendously. But our efforts to save Christmas? Hell, no.”

For other Santas, it was a lesson learned. “I don’t believe that Santa should ever enter into a political situation,” says Santa Stephen Arnold, the president and CEO of a competing Santa organization, the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas. “We live at the North Pole. We’re not Americans.”

There's a hierarchy in the Santa Claus performer world, with formal schooling, professional fraternities and rivalries. The biggest division among professional Santas is between those who are real-bearded and those who wear fake beards (known, counterintuitively, as "traditional" Santas). Depending on their skills, Santas of both types get hired for jobs ranging from mall Santas who sit on thrones and pose for pictures with kids, to models for Christmas catalogues and commercials.

“Those guys generally make considerably less per hour sitting on the throne, but they more or less make up for it by sheer volume of hours,” says Arnold.

And then there are “live performance” Santas, which is how most of the men interviewed for this story classify themselves, including Arnold. They do a little bit of everything, from hoisting kids onto their laps at private corporate parties, to showing up onstage at a Mariah Carey holiday concert, to closing out Thanksgiving parades. They have “a particular skill set” — improv, storytelling, and for some, training for special-needs children — that commands a higher rate — in Arnold’s case, $200 an hour. (Feminism came late to the North Pole. Mrs. Claus impersonators — many of whom are married to Santa performers in real life — have only recently been allowed full membership in professional organizations, and now are getting more solo opportunities.)

But the pandemic has made 2020 a bumpy sleigh ride for Santas of all beard types. It’s hard for them to decide what’s worse: the gigs that go forward, putting old men at risk of catching a deadly virus; or the gigs that cancel, depriving them of work and joy. A survey of nearly 400 professional Santas found that 47 percent of them were planning socially distanced in-person appearances. Thirteen percent said they would sit out the season entirely.

Tim Connaghan, a New York-based Santa Claus performer who is the official Santa for Toys for Tots, plans to do a few live, in-person, socially distanced events, but the cancellations hurt, and not just financially. Each year, he visits sick children in hospitals. Those visits will all be virtual this year, but it won’t feel the same.

“To actually get to visit these children whose families have had their lives so torn up,” he says, “it makes me feel good.”

Christmas could still be saved. Like employers and schools, Santas have begun to adapt. Walt Geer and his wife, Sarah Blackman, run the Atlanta attraction Santa’s Fantastical, which usually features live performances, virtual reality games and colorful, Instagram-ready sets for visitors: a candy-cane vortex, a 1950s living room and, of course, Santa’s big chair.

“It has big crowds who are shoulder to shoulder,” says Geer. So much for that in 2020.

This year they launched a new company, JingleRing, which connects hundreds of Santas with children in 14 countries via video chat — kind of like TalkSpace, but for Christmas wishes. Another new company, Santa: The Experience, offers parents a video tour, hosted by an elf named Pickles, of Santa’s workshop, mailroom and reindeer stables. It culminates in a video chat with the big guy himself.

Like so many others in the covid economy, Santa has become a gig worker.

“They’re not going to make the money that they made in the mall, or they made during the corporate parties,” says Connaghan, but hey, it’s better than nothing.

And it’s great for parents. Done cleverly, virtual visits can enhance the Santa myth: Parents can tip Santa off ahead of time with the child’s name, Christmas wishes, likes and dislikes, and messages they want Santa to pass along (clean your room more often if you want to stay off the naughty list!) and the information is displayed to Santa on his portal to make him seem more omniscient, and help him tell siblings apart. The portal display might tell him that Ava has red hair and wants a bike, while Olivia is blond and going through a “Paw Patrol” phase. “It’s not a dashboard,” says Geer of the tool, “It’s a Dasher board.”

There are other benefits: No screaming toddler meltdowns from being held by a strange bearded man. And companies make it easy for families to find Santas who are Black, fluent in Spanish or American Sign Language, Santas trained to work with special-needs children, or even a Mrs. Claus impersonator — none of which are guaranteed at your typical mall.

For Santa(s), working from home comes with new challenges. They have to be able to solve connectivity issues, set up lighting and a video camera, and troubleshoot if something goes wrong. JingleRing has enlisted “Claus Coaches” — a team of computer literate Santa performers who provide tech training for their peers. They also have a 24-hour professional tech support desk.

“When I say, like, they need a little help, some of them don’t know how to minimize a window, or they’re not quite sure how to download an application from an email,” says Geer.

Some of the Santas perform in front of elaborate Christmas sets they’ve built in their home, or dropcloth-style backdrops. Tech-savvy Santas, like Taylor, are deploying virtual backdrops: On a recent Zoom with The Post, he sat in a faux solarium with a twinkling Christmas tree, and a peaceful view of lightly falling snow amid the aurora borealis.

The stakes are high, too. One technological hiccup could ruin the illusion in a way that can’t be easily explained away by slow WiFi at the North Pole.

“I’m a little afraid that there could be a glitch and you could reach your hand out someplace and disappear against the blue screen,” says Arnold, who uses a set. He says he has rigged up a disembodied elf’s hand, operated by a foot pump, that can hand him things from just beyond the edge of the screen.

Santas have decided that magical feeling is worth the risk. But they have to take the right precautions. First, there's the issue of masks — a challenge when you have a long beard.

“You don’t really look like Santa” in a mask, says Arnold. Many Santas have opted for face shields instead, which allow children to see their expressions.

Then there’s social distancing, often facilitated by child-impermeable barrier. It’s important that kids can’t climb around it, or run up to Santa, and not just for their health.

“If a child were to, in a burst of enthusiasm, try to run up to me and give me a hug, it would be incumbent upon me to physically reject that child, which Santa cannot do,” says Erwin.

So set designers are getting creative. One of Arnold’s in-person appearances this year will have him at the top of a very tall sleigh. Children will pose six feet below him for their photos. In another, he’ll sit inside an inflatable bubble with air filtration.

He actually thinks he’ll be healthier this year. “Most of us catch a cold or bronchitis or something every year,” Arnold says. “Not being exposed to three or four or five or six or seven hundred children a day is going to go a long way.”

Bass Pro Shops, which hosts an elaborate Santa’s Wonderland each year, has forged ahead with its tradition, with one important addition: They call it “Santa’s Magic Shield.” It’s a plexiglass divider that is invisible in photos, so it looks like Santa is sitting with the kids. “When we took stock of everything, we were hearing about what families have had to endure this year,” says company spokesman Jack Wlezien. “We really challenged ourselves to say, is there a way we can do this safely and responsibly?”

So, this year, the store is making Santa visits appointment-only and requiring social distancing in line. After every child’s turn, a crew of elves comes in with sanitizer and disinfectant to wipe down the magic shield.

The setup might prompt some tough questions from the kids. How do elves do social distancing? Can Santa still visit us if we are quarantined? Can Santa catch covid-19? Can Santa give me covid-19? Is Santa a superspreader?

Connaghan, the Toys for Tots Santa, has a ready answer. The magic of Christmas is what makes reindeer fly, and how Santa squeezes down the chimney of every child in the world with his bottomless sack full of presents. And in 2020, it conveys other privileges. Epidemiological ones.

“The way I can get around the world in one night to all the homes and all the children — well, that magic extends a little bit to where it’ll be safe for me to go into all those homes,” he says. “It’s safe for you. But only for that one night.”