Farmers markets adjust to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines

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A man stands under a tent at a farmers market and talks to a woman in her car.
Andrew Rome, market manager for Haymaker Farmers Market, in Kent, Ohio, greets a customer at the drive-thru market, March 28. (Submitted photo)

While farmers markets are included under essential businesses in Ohio and life-sustaining businesses in Pennsylvania, market coordinators are still concerned about safety for vendors and customers, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a real hard pill to swallow that we might not be back to what we know as normal” for the summer, said Serena Jones, farmers market manager for Countryside Food and Farms, in Peninsula, Ohio.

Some markets don’t open until the summer and have more time to figure things out. Countryside’s biggest market, which brings in about 1,500 customers each Saturday, starts in May. But the Countryside Farmers Markets, and some others, also have indoor winter markets, which bring immediate concerns.

Drive-thru

Haymaker Farmers Market, in Kent, Ohio, is usually indoors at a church this time of year, said market manager, Andrew Rome. As the situation developed in mid-March, however, the board decided to close the market March 14.

“The market is an essential process … but we want to do it safely,” Rome said.

One week later, the board reopened the market with its first drive-thru market. Customers lined up in their cars in the parking lot, while vendors worked from their stands to the drivers side of the line. The market asked vendors to have one person handle money and a different person handle products.

Some vendors allowed customers to place orders online in advance. For customers who didn’t order in advance, farmers market volunteers handed out menus with lists of vendors and products at the beginning of the line. At the March 28 market, 200 cars came through the line.

“There’s still a community of people who get together at the farmers market, but just in this new way,” Rome said.

Howland Farmers Market, in Warren, Ohio, tried a similar drive-thru model April 4. Alexandra DiVito, manager for market, said the market usually includes special events, like cooking demonstrations, and encourages customers to engage with vendors and each other. The April 4 market, however, had to cut out those things to avoid encouraging customers to linger.

Two vendors work together to handle money and sell products at a farmers market.
Kristin Pool, of Black Dog Acres Farm, and Matt Herbruck, of Birdsong Organic Farm, were two vendors at Haymaker Farmers Market, in Kent, Ohio, March 28. They decided to work together so that one of them could handle money and the other could handle products at both of their stands. (Submitted photo)

Food assistance

Both markets are still accepting food assistance, like SNAP benefits, though DiVito noted that her market doesn’t have as many SNAP users at their winter markets as at their summer ones.

Minimize risks for COVID-19 at your farmers market

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Operators of farmers markets should consider the possibility that the COVID-19 outbreak may continue to be a threat well into the summer and should develop a plan to safeguard their customers and employees, according to Penn State Extension experts.

Each day brings new information and concern about COVID-19 and its impact on our lives, noted Luke LaBorde, extension produce safety specialist. If the threat lingers, social distancing and limitations on public gatherings could impact farmers markets.

Farmers markets are mostly open-air venues that, by their nature, might be less risky than grocery stores for some transmission of the virus, agreed Brian Moyer, extension educator specializing in business and community vitality.

Laborde and Moyer recommend the following methods for minimizing the transmission of COVID-19 at farmers markets:

Prepare stands. Have fully stocked handwashing and sanitizing stations in place at multiple locations, and post signs that inform everyone where hand sanitizing materials are available and that show the correct way to wash hands.

Put up signs and provide information on websites and social media to explain any changes, delivery options or extra precautions taken to limit exposure to the coronavirus. For example, instruct customers not to handle food. Prepackage bags of fruits, vegetables and other items.

Consider alternate pick-up, drive-through, curb service or delivery options to keep crowd levels low. Encourage customers to avoid lining up too close to each other.

Try to maintain a separation between stands of at least six feet. Consider limiting the number of customers in your market at one time.

If possible, have different people handle products and money, and make sure they wash their hands or use a hand sanitizer between these tasks.

Utilize card readers that allow customers to swipe their credit cards. Disable the signature function to limit contact from multiple customers. Use nonporous tablecloths, and clean and sanitize them regularly.

Do not allow customers to sample products. Eliminate market events, children’s activities and gathering areas, and encourage customers not to linger in the market. Eliminate eating areas.

Prepare your workforce. Train your staff to wash their hands regularly and frequently with soap and water, including scrubbing for 20 seconds.

Train them to maintain at least a 6-foot distance between them and customers. Stagger your lunchtimes or provide additional space to help employees distance.

Anyone who shows symptoms of a severe cold or flu, such as high fever, coughing and difficulty breathing, should be sent home. You may need a plan to hire temporary workers.

Encourage your staff not to handle customers’ reusable bags. Train your staff to know that visitors over the age of 60 or who have pre-existing conditions are at a higher risk for becoming ill if they get the virus.

Consider offering early-hour shopping for these higher-risk customers.

Sanitize contact surfaces. Frequently disinfect tabletops, door handles, cash boxes, credit card machines, shopping baskets and other contact surfaces with EPA-registered sanitizer sprays or wipes labeled as effective against viruses. Do not purchase sanitizers from suppliers who claim their products kill viruses without showing proof of efficacy.

Frequently clean and sanitize common gathering places such as restrooms, break rooms and meeting rooms.

For more information from Penn State Extension about COVID-19, go to https://extension.psu.edu/coronavirus.

Rome said Haymaker Farmers Market has used wooden tokens for years — customers with SNAP benefits can swipe their card at the market’s stand to get tokens and spend the tokens with vendors throughout the market, and, afterwards, vendors can redeem tokens with the market.

Rome said he is looking at partnering with Kent Community TimeBank, which has lists of volunteers willing to run errands for people who are self-isolating, to help make the market accessible for customers that don’t have cars.They are continuing to use tokens, but sanitizing tokens before the market.

Summer

Both markets are planning to continue with the drive-thru model until the end of their winter seasons. After that, it’s hard to say.

“Until we think it’s safe to move completely outdoors, we’re probably going to do the drive-thru markets,” DiVito said.

Some markets don’t open at all until May, or even later. The Beaver County Farmers Markets, in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, are planning to open April 29.The Howland market is scheduled to start its outdoor season May 16. Haymaker Farmers Market’s outdoor season also starts in May. Rome said he plans to keep smoothing out the drive-thru process in case the market needs to continue under that model into the summer season, which tends to be busier.

Chuck Malone, president of the farmers markets, said depending on how crowded the markets get, they may need to limit how many customers can enter at once. Beaver County’s six markets are outdoors. Malone noted that while the first market opens April 29, they don’t get very crowded until June or July.

He plans to keep sanitizer at all market entrances, and to ask vendors to keep hand sanitizer at their stands and to have one person handle money and a different person handle products. In addition, he plans to try to keep people at least six feet apart.

Malone said Penn State Extension has been helping his market stay up to date with new information.

Challenges

Not all alternative farmers market models went well on the first attempt.

“To be honest, our first attempt … was a complete bomb,” Jones said.

She and the Countryside Food and Farms’ other staff and volunteers tried a curb-side pick-up system.

Vendors uploaded their products to the farmers market’s website, customers ordered online, and then picked up their orders. Vendors could drop off their products the morning of the market, and the farmers market staff and volunteers would handle getting the products to customers from there.

It was a great idea in theory, Jones said. But in reality, the staff and volunteers were overwhelmed by the number of orders that came in. They expected about 50. They ended up with almost 400. The sales more than tripled what Jones expected farmers to make.

Add in a thunderstorm, which forced staff to sit in their cars for 15 minutes and wait every time they saw lightning, and Jones and others ended up working from 5 a.m. the day of the market until midnight. They were still making deliveries for several days after the market.

“It was a really trying … experience,” Jones said. “But it was also really amazing in how our community came through and supported these farmers.”

Jones said staff are already planning a new version of their curb-side market. They are considering setting limits on the number of orders, and having vendors stay on-site to help distribute their orders.

“We may not get to have opening day on May 2 in our usual style,” Jones said. “We need to get good at this other style.”

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