AYUTTHAYA, Thailand, Dec 23 (Reuters) – Santa Claus gave his sleigh and reindeer a break on Wednesday and rode elephants in Thailand during a special Christmas visit aimed at raising awareness about the threat of the coronavirus.

White-bearded handlers in floppy hats and Santa outfits sat atop elephants decked out in tinsel and trunk masks in the central province of Ayutthaya, distributing protective masks in baskets to schoolchildren, motorcyclists and drivers passing by.

“They are funny and they are lovely. I think they are so cute,” said elementary student Laksaporn Loetpiriyakamol.

The elephants have been paying year-end visits to schools in the area for two decades and normally give out gifts like candy and toys using their trunks.

This year, the pachyderms were social distancing, staying outside the schools and used their trunks to offer the face masks in baskets instead.

“These four elephants want to represent Thai Santa Claus to encourage people to wear masks, wash their hands and follow government instructions,” said Itthi Pankhawlamai, who manages a local elephant park.

“I’m a little bit excited and sad because the elephants can’t go into the school,” said Pacharamon Sukphiromsanti, 12, who came out to greet the elephants at the gates.

Thai authorities are urging extra caution after its worst outbreak was confirmed at the weekend, at a seafood center near Bangkok, with cases since detected in about a quarter of the country’s provinces.

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Karishma Singh)

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