PITTSBURG — Santa Claus is staying ho-ho-home this year in the lead-up to Christmas morning as COVID-19 continues to sweep through Crawford County.

In a normal year, Santa can be found in Pittsburg at the Meadowbrook Mall throughout the month of December taking photos with kids and noting their Christmas wishes before the big day arrives, but this year he is quarantining at an undisclosed location — presumably the North Pole — until the night of Dec. 24.

"We just couldn’t find a way to do it safely this year," a man identifying himself as Santa said over the phone.

However, Santa emphasized that he would still be able to get kids their presents this year.

"I’m taking all the necessary precautions," he said. "Also, I’m toying with using some Christmas magic to get presents under the tree that would allow me to not have to enter people’s homes."

Johnny Miller, who is in regular contact with Santa and has occasionally since 1998 impersonated him in Pittsburg when other obligations prevent the real Kriss Kringle from coming to town, is sad that he won’t get to help local kids meet Santa this year but said he knows it is for the best.

"We need to keep the kids safe — you gotta put the kids first,″ he said. "That’s the way I’ve always looked at it. It’s all about the kids."

Miller has been helping Santa at Meadowbrook Mall for over 20 years since an accident left him disabled.

"I was looking for something to do," he said, "and someone from the mall called a family friend and said Santa needed help, and the rest is history."

He said he has seen it all. Kids excited to meet Santa and kids terrified of the man in a red suit. He’s witnessed kids go from asking for dolls and Nintendos to asking for phones and "well, still Nintendos." But through it all he never gets tired of helping kids experience the magic of Christmas.

″I’ve really enjoyed it," he said. "Just this year it’s not safe."

Miller said he knows people will be disappointed, but it′s important for people to do their part to keep everyone safe during these unprecedented times. He said personally he can’t afford to get COVID-19 as he has diabetes and asthma.

″We’re just staying home this year," he said. "Like we did for Thanksgiving. We’re very, very careful."

Miller said Santa is doing all he can to make this Christmas a great one, even though it may look different. He said Santa knows "it’s all about the kids."

Before he got off the phone, Santa paused to wish the people of Pittsburg, and across the state, a wonderful holiday season.

"Merry Christmas, kids," Santa said. "Ho, ho, ho."