At Sharon’s Shaved Ice in Bel Air Plaza, the picnic tables are upside down and off-limits, the servers wear face masks and there’s as much hand sanitizer as marshmallow inside the snowball stand. Customers queue up six feet apart and may face a 15-minute wait.
“Everyone in line has a smile, and no one is in a hurry,” owner Sharon Castronova says.
During the coronavirus pandemic, where else is there to go?
For many, the opening of snowball season signals the start of spring. This year, it’s a bigger deal: families are flocking to snowball shacks for constancy in a crisis, as if confections will stave off infections.
“People keep thanking us for being open so they can get outside and do something they’re accustomed to,” Castronova says.
In Randallstown, Christy Paul sees relief in the eyes of her patrons wearing masks as they approach the Original Hawaiian Islands Snoballs stand on Liberty Road.
“The pandemic adds a layer of uncertainty to life and we bring some normalcy back,” says Paul. “Plus, people feel safer outside than being cooped up in a store.”
Snowball stands are meeting the coronavirus challenge. At her family’s stand, which opened May 1 for the 35th year, Paul installed new counters and floors, made masks and gloves mandatory and stationed a worker outside to make sure those in line don’t get too close.
“No problems there; people totally get that,” says Paul. “Ninety percent of them are wearing masks too, though I do see a lot of noses poking out.”
Inside, timers ding every 30 minutes, reminding employees to wash their hands.
“We’ve gone above and beyond the health department [regulations], which require customers to stand six feet apart and workers to wear face masks,” she says. “Some [employees] worked in restaurants and have been laid off for more than a month. I’m happy they are getting good tips,” as much as $5 from grateful customers, including parents of grade-school children who sometimes share stories at the window.
“They say their kids are sad because, given the virus, they couldn’t have birthday parties, so snowballs give them something to look forward to,” Paul says. “Also, parents are telling them, ‘Do your schoolwork at home today and we’ll go out for a treat.' If they have to bribe kids with a snowball, more power to them.”
Perhaps no establishment is better equipped to deal with the coronavirus than Stouten’s Snowball Stop in Dundalk, which offers a drive-thru window.
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“We put [the window] in 19 years ago and, if that makes me look like a genius now, I’ll take it,” owner Keith Stouten says. Business at the drive-thru has doubled this year, to 90 percent of sales, and cars were stacked 20 deep along Merritt Boulevard recently.
“The drive-thru is definitely more appealing with this COVID thing going on,” says Stouten.
Traffic cones spaced six feet apart greet walk-ups who are called onto the deck, one by one, to order flavors such as Snickers or the ever-popular egg custard. This year, employees sanitize the counter between every customer while one worker handles the cash — and nothing else.
“They used to do both,” Stouten says, “but now people have to know that things are safe. I don’t want folks who have been stuck in the house for four weeks to pull up and say, ‘Oh no, the same girl who took my money is making my snowball.’ It’s as much about appearance as safety.”
Do patrons appreciate the effort? In one six-hour shift last week, one employee earned $141 in tips. Another night, three teens who worked from 5 to 8 p.m. took in $48 apiece.