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SC Santa Claus tests positive for COVID-19 in Fountain Inn event for autistic children

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The city of Fountain Inn posted a warning on its website and encouraged anyone who participated in the "Sensory Santa" event to get a COVID-19 test after a person playing Santa tested positive for the virus. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

FOUNTAIN INN — Parents whose autistic children participated in a city-sponsored Christmas event have been warned the man playing the part of Santa Claus this past weekend has tested positive for COVID-19.

The city of Fountain Inn posted the warning on its website and sent emails to parents involved encouraging anyone who participated in the "Sensory Santa" event to get a COVID test.

The positive test comes at a time when cities across the Upstate made disparate decisions on whether to have such events or even Christmas parades. The city of Greenville canceled its annual parade out of concern.

Fountain Inn has for decades been known for its embrace of the Christmas season, with events and holiday lights strung throughout its revitalized downtown area, as well as by residents up and down its Main Street.

The Sensory Santa event, which involved 11 families, was designed for autistic children, so there is less noise and fewer lights that could overwhelm their acute senses. The children also didn't sit on Santa's lap as is custom.

The lap-sitting aspect also isn't a part of this year's main Santa program that's open to a larger group of children, City Manager Shawn Bell told The Post and Courier on Friday.

In both events, held at the open-air city Farmers Market, a rope separates the children from Santa, with a distance of about 6 feet, Bell said.

The city doesn't have a mask ordinance. Attendees were told masks were required, but not if the individual felt they couldn't wear one.

"When they signed up, we told them that masks were required for those that could wear them," Bell said. "Many of the family members did wear masks, and some of them chose not to.”

The Santa role player in both events doesn't wear a mask, Bell said. The general event has two more dates, Saturday and Sunday.

The city won't change health protocols for those future dates, he said.

"We are suggesting the use of masks," Bell said. "We kind of feel like if individuals aren't comfortable, then they shouldn't be attending."

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The Sensory Santa event is different from the city's other Santa events.

Parents were required to pre-register, which gave the city their email addresses to send out warnings. The alert was posted on the city's website after the city learned from the man playing Santa he had tested positive.

The city contacted parents of the Sensory Santa event when the Santa character informed officials on Monday that he had been exposed to a mother-in-law who had tested positive, information he learned after the event, Bell said.

The city contacted parents on Tuesday about the exposure, then again when the man alerted them he had tested positive late Wednesday. The city posted the warning on its website Thursday.

The city received positive feedback from parents about the special event for autistic children, Bell said.

Across the Upstate, the spread of coronavirus is soaring and health officials warning that hospitals either are full or close to it as the holiday season brings people closer together, whether it's college students returning home, seasonal parties or public gatherings.

In Greenville County on Friday, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control reported 622 new cases, at least twice the number of any other county in South Carolina.

Greenville County has had and still does have one of the highest infection rates in the state. The two-week incidence rate is 1,073 for every 100,000 residents, meaning about one of every 100 people has had a positive test for the virus in the past 14 days. A high rate is considered anything over 200 per 100,000 people.

Statewide cases have hovered at or below 3,000 per day, with a record 3,648 on Friday, far more than last summer's spike that caused health officials to issue dire warnings.

In the time since Fountain Inn's event on Sunday, more than a dozen people have died in the Upstate.


Follow Eric on Twitter at @cericconnor.

Reporter/Local Editor

Eric is a reporter and local editor for The Post and Courier in Greenville. Previously with The Greenville News, he's covered the Upstate for two decades and served as a USA TODAY correspondent. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina.

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