Hopes of a Christmas gift for Santa Claus, Mrs Claus and their elves were thwarted after the US government cancelled plans to offer them early access to a coronavirus vaccine, should one be approved.
Officials had reportedly planned to provide workers playing the festive roles at malls, stores and theme parks with immunisation, in return for help promoting a Covid-19 vaccine as part of a $250m taxpayer-funded public service advertising campaign. But the plan, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, has been scrapped.
The paper said the deal was conceived by Michael Caputo, a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) assistant secretary who went on a 60-day medical leave last month, after making incendiary remarks about the election and finding himself mired in controversy over political interference in coronavirus messaging. The remainder of the campaign – which had planned to feature celebrities, television, radio and online ads and live events in 35 cities – is now under review.
On Monday an HHS spokeswoman told the Guardian the Santa collaboration “will not be happening”, adding that the health secretary, Alex Azar, “had no knowledge of these outreach discussions”.
Ric Erwin, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, which has about 650 members, told the Guardian: “To say that we were disappointed is just scratching the surface. This was in fact our greatest hope to help this country end the worst year ever on the best note possible.”
Erwin, who testified at an HHS advisory meeting, added: “As I explained to the advisory council, this year Christmas is going to be more important to the American psyche than it has ever been, for the first time since the depths of the great depression or the darkest hours of world war two.”
In the absence of a vaccine, Erwin, who usually sees as many as 15,000 children a year, notified his clients and agent last week that with the exception of a few virtual events, which he said are “exploding around the country”, he will not be taking part in this year’s season.
It will be his first break from Christmas since becoming a Santa in 2002, but after his wife lost her father to Covid-19 in May, he promised he would take “zero chances in bringing the virus home”.
With Santas falling in the “high-risk category”, Erwin said inoculation was vital to making in-person visits possible.
“Not to mention the fact that our clientele, the children, are notorious vectors for all things infectious,” he said.
In a 12-minute phone call, recorded by Erwin and provided to the Journal, Caputo said the vaccines would probably be approved by mid-November and given to frontline workers before Thanksgiving, which this year falls on 26 November.
In an excerpt from the call, Caputo can be heard saying: “If you and your colleagues are not essential workers, I don’t know what is.”
Erwin enthusiastically responds: “Ho ho ho … I love you.”
Vowing to bring 50 costumed Santas to an event in southern California, Erwin told Caputo: “My friend, we will pull this sleigh uphill ourselves if we have to.”
Caputo also said he “cannot wait to tell the president”, who he said was “going to love this”.
HHS officials told the Journal Azar had ordered a strategic review of the campaign, to decide whether it “serves important public health purposes”.
A spokesman told the Guardian: “Michael Caputo had a vision for the campaign that would be accomplished with expertise from across the department. He talked with a lot of people inside and outside of government about how they might be able to participate including all sorts of celebrities.
“The plan has always been to only use materials reviewed by a department-wide team of experts including scientists from [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] who will ensure the latest scientific information is used to provide important public health, therapeutic and vaccine information.”
With many in-person events cancelled amid the pandemic, this is only the latest setback for the nation’s Santa Claus performers. For the first time in 159 years, Macy’s has cancelled Santa Claus meet-and-greets at its stores, replacing them with virtual interactions.
More than 8.6 million people have been infected in the US and 225,230 have died. The virus continues to surge. The seven-day average of new cases hit 68,767 on Sunday – the highest since the start of the pandemic. Friday and Saturday saw the two highest single days of new cases.