Column: At my wife’s Santa Ana market, the masks have never come off

A seated person puts a face mask into a bag as several people stand nearby.
Brandon Gremchuck prepares individual packets of masks that Alta Baja Market provides to shoppers as they enter.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Share

Alta Baja Market in downtown Santa Ana has five posters taped to its front doors, each more exasperated than the last.

Two of them let customers know that masks are mandatory if they’re not sitting down to eat. One has a drawing of a standard-issue three-layer blue mask with “Por Favor” written below it in cursive.

“No Shoes No Shirt No Mask No Service!” blares another. And the coup de grace — “Por Favor Wear a Pinche Mask.” Please wear a damned mask.

Welcome to Delilah Snell’s store. She’s my wife.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Once you get past those posters, Alta Baja Market is a cheery, welcoming bistro. Shelves are lined with foodstuffs and beauty products from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Roll-up windows offer constant sunshine and ventilation.

I’ve taste-tested all the micheladas — hey, when your significant other runs a restaurant, you get some perks. But you also have to deal with the bad. So for the past year and a half, I’ve had a front-row seat to how the coronavirus has played out at a small business, in a place like Orange County.

This is infamously “pandejo” central — the home of pandemic pendejos, or blockheads. A county where a restaurant owner who openly defied mask and social distance policies got elected to the Newport Beach City Council. Where an Italian restaurant in — where else? — Huntington Beach got national attention for refusing to serve vaccinated people. Where less than 50% of the under-65 population in the 92701 ZIP Code where Alta Baja is located is vaccinated against COVID-19 — among the lowest rates in O.C.

Delilah Snell stands at the front door of her store, where she has enforced a mask mandate since the start of the pandemic.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

These past 18 months have been tough for Delilah. And yet I’ve never seen her more at peace. Alta Baja offers hope that there is a way forward on this pandemic. We just have to embrace my wife’s to-go plate of kindness, luck, perspective and toughness. And it starts with a simple mantra:

Advertisement

Wear a pinche mask.

Especially now, as the Delta variant pulls us back kicking and screaming into the world of eternal COVID-19 misery.

Delilah’s been ready for this moment.

When California Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted the tiered COVID-19 restriction system and restaurants began to drop masks, she doubled down.

In an Alta Baja newsletter shortly after Newsom’s announcement, Delilah declared that she and her workers would continue to wear masks while preparing food and planned to require masks for customers until the pandemic was finally, truly over — which definitely isn’t now.

“We sympathize that we’re all stuck in this horrible situation that none of us wanted. And we let them know that. Customers get it.”

Delilah Snell, owner of Alta Baja Market

Masks have become so politicized that we forget what they’re fundamentally for: not virtue-signaling or paranoia, but making sure we don’t get others sick. Hospitality, in other words.

“This world that we’re in right now, it’s different and we need to take care of each other,” she told me from the couch of our home while preparing an Instagram post for Alta Baja’s account. “And that’s what this is about: care. Do the right thing despite people maybe being upset about it.”

Now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and some state and local governments are recommending people mask up in indoor public spaces, Delilah is upset — not at the action, but that such proclamations were rescinded in the first place.

“We’re in a pandemic. This isn’t over yet,” she said. “As a business owner, I need to be responsible to my employees and customers. The easiest thing that we can all do to ensure that everyone is safe is wearing a mask.”

Advertisement

By the time Newsom shut down California last March for what ended up being over a year, Delilah was ready for the worst — which has basically happened.

Alta Baja never closed completely because it’s a market and considered an essential business. But her numbers suffered — she now opens two hours later and closes three hours earlier.

“A lot of people thought we’d get back to normal quick,” she said. “I wanted to go back to normal too. But I had to be as realistic as possible. This wouldn’t be something over in a couple of weeks or months. I was thinking years.”

To this day, Delilah hasn’t reopened Alta Baja to full dining capacity. She didn’t want to tell customers one thing, then quickly pivot to another — a situation most restaurants and businesses now find themselves in.

Alta Baja Market provides masks and hand sanitizer to shoppers as they enter the store.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“The one thing I can be is be consistent,” she said. “But consistency has been lacking in our leadership. If you’re going to mandate masks, you better wear a mask the entire damn time. When you don’t, it’s completely unfair, and you’re sending mixed messages. Now look where we’re at.”

Her consistently hard mask stance is a recipe for daily clashes, angry customers and a flurry of bad reviews — again, we’re in Orange County. But I’ve seen her social experiment play out from Alta Baja’s counter, where I sometimes moonlight as a cashier, because that’s what good spouses do.

Those snippy posters at the entrance are more bark than bite. If someone comes in without a mask, Delilah and her workers immediately direct them to a basket full of them near the entrance with a smile, clasped hands, a “Sorry!” and a quick thank you.

If people question Delilah’s policy, her rejoinder is usually, “This is my first pandemic — how about you?” with a side of her loud, infectious laugh.

Almost every customer who comes in without a mask puts one on, and even offers an embarrassed “Sorry!” And those few who walk into the store, see a sea of masked people, get an annoyed look on their face and storm out? Have fun at Taco Bell.

Advertisement

“We sympathize that we’re all stuck in this horrible situation that none of us wanted,” Delilah said. “And we let them know that. Customers get it.”

My wife is so on it at Alta Baja that she even shames me.

Early in the pandemic, I didn’t wear a mask until a customer complained. Delilah upbraided me afterward, saying I needed to set an example as her husband.

I went with a bandanna at first because I wanted to look cool — and then Delilah directed me to a study that showed bandannas were basically useless at preventing the spread of coronavirus (I now wear a mask underneath the bandanna because I still want to look cool).

When Newsom lifted the mask mandate for indoor dining in June, I suggested she adopt the new policy to avoid putting off customers. She ignored me, and customers haven’t stopped coming.

No wonder I’m a columnist and not a small business owner.

Delilah gets why businesses, desperate for customers, might be more lax in mask usage. But she also says that type of thinking will keep us in an endless pandemic loop.

So she wears a pinche mask.

“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I got someone sick with COVID at Alta Baja,” she said, “when I could’ve done something so easy to stop it.”