Coronavirus response shuts down farmers markets, but supporters say they’re essential
Farmers markets and their supporters in Seattle are submitting more than 1,500 signatures to Mayor Jenny Durkan, asking to be considered essential businesses the same way grocery stores are — which would give them the green light to reopen.
Seattle shut them down on March 13, amid the wave of widespread closures in response to the novel coronavirus. The markets were subject to the ban because they are classified similar to parades or street fairs.
Typically, they’re full of customers purchasing food directly from growers and producers — and there’s often music and in some places, crafts, information booths and food sampling. That scene has to change, at least temporarily.
“A market can be a lovely festive place, but the time for that is not right now,” said Jennifer Antos, executive director of Seattle’s Neighborhood Farmers Markets, including the three year-round markets that were suddenly shuttered.
Antos says they’re ready to reopen, without any entertainment or non-food-providing vendors. And they’ll limit the numbers of booths and customers coming in and have lots of new signs and new rules.
“So for example, shoppers would not be allowed to touch or handle products or produce,” she said.
But what would remain is the direct connection with the farmers, many of whom are operating on narrow margins or come from as far Eastern Washington. Some have gone online and are taking orders for pick up or delivery. But many can’t just turn on a dime.
The fun and festive aspects of the market are a sign of their success, but it’s not their core mission, says Colleen Donovan, executive director of the statewide Farmers Market Association. She says around the U.S., in markets that have remained open with social-distancing measures in place, business has been booming.
This is true of places are far away as New Orleans or other places in the South, and as close to home as the Proctor Farmers Market near Tacoma, which held its final winter market on March 13 — the same day Seattle’s had to shut down.
“You know where that food came from. You know that it’s gone through a shorter supply chain,” Donovan said. “And a lot of people really care about that transparency of where their food is coming from, especially in these times.”
SOME MARKETS STAY OPEN
The Proctor Farmers Market stayed open when others didn’t, in part because they already had a strict policy of food and farmers only, a policy they have long held. But they did eliminate music and their normal cafe seating arrangements when the social-distancing measures were first mandated. They also added sanitation stations, “from one end of the market to the other,” said board chair Scott Gruber, who also is the owner-operator of Calendula Farm and Earthworks in Tacoma.
Seattle's neighborhood markets also run a strict farm- and food-only vendor mix, Antos says, and they also implemented new social-distancing and sanitation measures before the city shut them down. But they still were regarded as non-essential events.
In a statement from Mayor Durkan's office, the City of Seattle says it is working with the markets "to explore options to increase food access while ensuring the health safety of their vendors and customers is consistent with public health guidance."
Gruber says the Proctor market's board decided after some deliberation to delay the start of their spring season for at least two weeks, just to make sure they had all the best practices in place after Gov. Inslee issued his “stay at home, stay healthy” order.
They’re planning to open again in mid-April. Gruber says it wasn’t an easy decision to shut down. The Proctor Farmers Market acts as an incubator for many food-related businesses to test new ideas and have helped launch quite a few. They also have staff with regular weekend shifts who depend on their wages. Even Gruber has been hustling to deliver plant orders to customers who would normally buy from him at the market.
But they didn’t want to be perceived as cavalier by the community or unconcerned about public health. The board felt it necessary to take a break and make sure the public understands this is not just business as usual.
“The general public doesn’t necessarily across the board see a farmers market as a grocery store,” Gruber said. “They see it as an event. And because of that there are going to be people who show up and still treat it as a community, social event.”
He says the Proctor Farmers Market will provide three-quarters pay to the hourly workers who set up the market while it is closed.
UPDATE, March 31, 11:25 a.m.: This story has been updated to clarify rules around vendors allowed in the Seattle Neighborhood Markets. They allow only farms and food-related businesses and had done so even before the advent of COVID-19.