The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dozens of children went to see Santa. He may have exposed them to the coronavirus.

A performer dressed as Santa Claus wears a protective mask while waving during the Night of Lights OC drive-through Christmas light show in Costa Mesa, Calif., on Saturday. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg News)

Santa and Mrs. Claus weren’t feeling any symptoms the day they visited with dozens of children during an annual Christmas parade.

But four days after the Dec. 10 event in the small city of Ludowici, Ga., a local official took to Facebook with startling news: The Clauses had both tested positive for the coronavirus, raising the possibility that around 50 youngsters were exposed.

“I have personally known both ‘Santa’ and ‘Mrs. Claus’ my entire life and I can assure everyone that they would have never knowingly done anything to place any children in danger,” Long County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robert D. Parker wrote in a message to the community.

He added that his own children had taken photos with Santa “and their smiles were bigger than any day when they head off to school, where the same risk of exposure exist.”

The revelation that a treasured Christmas tradition had created an opportunity for the virus to spread came 11 days before the holiday, as Americans grappled with how to safely celebrate amid an unprecedented rise in cases. The nation is seeing upward of 200,000 new infections reported each day and deaths have exceeded their spring peak. Health experts worry that travel and other holiday traditions could exacerbate what is already shaping up to be the pandemic’s darkest period.

In a year unlike any other, some Santa Claus performers have been meeting with children via Zoom or while separated by plexiglass, hoping to limit potential transmission of the virus while still hewing to tradition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Santa visits be virtual or outdoors with masks and six feet of distance.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused Santa to get creative and swap mall visits for virtual, digital chats with children and families all over the world. (Video: Brittany Shammas/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

The Ludowici event was held outside in the city about an hour southwest of Savannah, with a parade followed by a tree lighting and the chance for kids to meet with Santa and Mrs. Claus at a pavilion. But it appears that not all of the CDC guidelines were rigorously applied.

The Long County Chamber of Commerce, which put on the parade, did not respond to a request for comment. Parker said in an interview Tuesday that although the Clauses were masked when he saw them, he has gathered that they weren’t wearing masks the whole time. He said he didn’t know whether kids sat in Santa’s lap, but noted his own young children stood beside him.

“I wouldn’t have done anything different with anything other than the Santa Claus visit,” Parker told The Washington Post. “I want to reiterate again that we didn’t set it up, but I do wish that a few more recommendations had been taken in that aspect.”

The children who came into close contact with Santa are now being told to stay home from school until after winter break, local television station WSAV reported. Administrators had already begun offering the option of virtual learning the week before, citing the high number of students and staff who have either contracted the coronavirus or are isolated because of potential exposure.

In his message to the community, Parker called on families to follow the CDC guidelines for those who may have come in contact with the virus. He described the situation as a cause for concern, but not panic, writing, “I feel that it is important to note that exposures happen every day as we go about our day to day lives, often without any knowledge.”

He defended the decision to go forward with the annual event and to “bring some sense of normalcy to these trying times,” even though his own two children were among the ones affected.

“They were exposed just like everybody else, and I’m still not regretful that they had the experience,” he told The Washington Post. “Because I think it’s important for children to celebrate holiday traditions.”

He added, “I guess we’ll have an answer as to whether or not it was a good idea in 14 days.”