Easter Bunnyland at Crossgates Mall is usually a six-week program, open all mall hours, which entices kids and families to take a picture with the holiday’s favorite furry friend.
But unfortunately, last year’s bunny visits — like virtually everything else — were shortened to just two weeks, when the pandemic derailed any hopes of congregating in malls.
This Easter, Bunnyland is different. The photo opps are now inside of a Crossgates storefront in an effort for operators to control the environment and runs as a weekend-only offering this year, expanding to half-days in the mall and now operating at standard hours.
“When this season came around, we were looking at a way to bring the Easter Bunny out to the families of the Capital Region, while still providing a safe environment,” said Jim Valentino, owner of Capital Photo, the company that runs Easter Bunnyland. “We feel we’ve successfully done that.”
But mall bunnies are only part of the magic that makes Easter. Local candy sellers also see the holiday as a big treat of its own — accounting for much of their walk-ins in March — while members of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany are now able to hold socially distant masses, something that wasn’t a possibility last Easter. While some hope this Easter Sunday can offer somewhat of a sense of normalcy, all are still cautious of the state of the pandemic.
“We’ve built essentially a little photo studio within the storefront so that we follow the state guidelines which are for photo studios, which essentially can’t have more than 10 people in the space,” Valentino said of his set-up. “As long as all the staff and photographers are always wearing masks and staying at least six feet away, the subjects can remove their masks for the photo and the replacement. So we’re giving the families the option of letting children sit about six feet in front of the bunny on this bench. It’s a product that they’re almost used to getting.”
Easter Bunnyland has now seen roughly 150 visits per day on the weekends, which is 80-90% of a regular year’s traffic.
“This is just something light, it’s the mark of spring for a lot of people and nice weather coming,” Valentino said. “It allows them to come out as a family unit and just do something that’s simple and light and fun. The mall traffic has been picking up, they’re appreciative that we’ve taken all the safety precautions, but also offered them something that’s worth buying.”
Similarly, Joe Suhrada, owner of Uncle Sam’s Candy in both Schenectady and Latham, has had a major Easter bounceback. While online sales for his business went up 250% in 2020, it lost 49% of walk-in customers during 2020’s Easter season, between March 1 and April 30, as sales were down nearly 25%.
But things are looking up. Starting to see Easter customers two weeks before the holiday, walk-in sales for this season are only down 10% as the store opened up trailers in the store’s parking lot for customers to pick up their sweets.
“The season used to be the biggest season but it has since become the second-biggest season behind Christmas,” Suhrada said. “And now we’re starting to see it be very busy this year. So I think people are coming back, they really want their sweets and candies and chocolates, nothing’s gonna stop them from getting it. They also recognize the importance of buying local, because of the fact that it keeps the money in the community.”
Suhrada said he usually sees the most Uncle Sam’s customers on Easter weekend, rather than on weekdays leading up to the holiday. But with so many locals now working from home, shopping habits are changing.
One thing that will never change, however, is the key purchases for every Easter shopper: Chocolate bunnies, filled eggs and jellybeans.
“Easter is not a very radical holiday for new candies,” Suhrada said. “But we’ve gotten into some of the spice here and savory chocolate combinations over the last several years and we find that, when it comes to Easter, the chocolate bunnies, jellybeans and filled eggs are really the mainstay.”
Of course, for many, no easter is complete without mass. Mary DeTurris Poust, Director of Communications for the Albany Diocese, said that the diocese has seen “great response” to this year’s Holy Week services so far.
“I know some parishes have had to add Masses in order to accommodate parishioners while maintaining our social distancing protocols,” Poust wrote in an email. “I think people are especially happy about being able to celebrate in community — masks on and six feet apart, of course — during these holiest days in the Church year, especially after being unable to do so last year. We are so grateful to local Catholics who have been so patient and so cooperative in adapting to Mass in a time of COVID, and we look forward to welcoming them back to our parishes at Easter and in the weeks and months to come.”
In terms of changes for the diocese this year, Poust recommends those who don’t know their parish’s mass protocol to check their respective bulletins or websites. Some are requiring advanced registration by churchgoers, while others request early arrival. Masks are required at all churches, and more information is available on the diocesan website, rcda.org, where Bishop Edward Scharfenberger’s liturgies will be livestreamed.
Many in the community are hoping, while normalcy is far away, this Easter can restore just a piece of it.
“People feel good when they get that Easter chocolate and reconnect some with their childhood,” said Suhrada. “And you can see the happiness. They’re getting a little taste of what they remember. Nothing’s ever changed about our chocolate in 90 years, so they know what they’re getting when they taste our chocolate if they’ve been brought up on it. And it’s always good when you see new customers.”