Scare Won't Stop Workers From Answering Santa's Mail

COLUMBUS (AP) - Santa Claus won't let the anthrax scare keep him from opening and answering the mail of Ohio's children -- and neither will the state's postal workers.

The anthrax anxiety that gripped U.S. post offices in the past month threatened to end traditional efforts of postal workers to open and answer the letters children write to Santa.

Nationally, Postal Service officials cautioned that opening millions of such letters might be too much to ask of workers traumatized by weeks of frightening stories about powdery letters, sickness and death.

They left the decision up to local post offices.

Just two weeks ago, fear forced managers of the Cincinnati postal region to cancel its yearly Santa's Workshop. In Cincinnati, postal employees not only answer letters but also help the neediest of the letter-writing families with toys and gifts.

Spokeswoman Bonni Manies said the cancellation was heartbreaking for the many postal employees looking forward to playing Santa and sparked an emotional debate over whether to continue the program.

Manies strongly advocated keeping the program.

"It was at the height of the fears, at the peak, when we really didn't know what was going on," Manies said. "Look at us now. It's all died down pretty quickly."

Many employees who wanted to continue the program were inspired in part by postal workers in the New York area who will open their Santa letters.

"If they could pull their workers together, with all they've been through, how could we in the heartland of America not do it?"

Two weeks without any major anthrax revelations, plus a clean bill of health for the main post offices in Columbus and Cincinnati after sweeps for anthrax, made the situation look different.

In Columbus, members of unions for letter carriers and postal clerks gave only brief consideration to the changed circumstances before they decided to carry on with reading and answering letters as they have for years.

The employees who head the letter-answering effort in Columbus didn't want to discuss the decision -- or anything else about the program -- for fear of spoiling Santa's image for earnest young correspondents.

"They want to keep a very low profile," said Melody Rurik, spokeswoman for the Columbus office.

(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)