RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Christmas wasn't just a time to be merry for Gino Esposito, it was a job.
With a thick waist and long gray beard, Esposito is a professional Santa Claus who dresses up to hear children's Christmas wishes at shopping malls in Rio de Janeiro.
But this year the coronavirus, and the social restrictions it brings, has decimated demand. Esposito's costume hangs, unused.
"It's sad," Esposito told Reuters at the newsstand he runs, decorated with pictures of proud Christmas appearances.
"I can't be Santa Claus. The epidemic is there and one feels out of place," he said. "You get used to the habit every year."
COVID-19 has killed more than 170,000 people in Brazil, the world's second-highest death toll behind only the United States.
After a brief hiatus, cases are rising across the country again.
Limachem Cherem, who runs a Santa school in Rio, said local demand for Father Christmas has fallen some 60% to 70%.
There's only one wish on everyone's lips this year, according to Cherem.
"The main gift not only for children but I think for everyone when they come talk to Santa Claus is the (COVID-19) vaccine."
(Reporting by Sergio Queiroz; writing by Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)