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In The Age Of COVID-19, Farmers Markets Are All Business

ROCHESTER, NY (WXXI) - On a typical summer Sunday morning, the Brighton Farmers Market is packed with shoppers. Live music pipes through the gaps between seniors and young couples carrying produce in reusable totes, families hauling kids in wagons, and dog owners navigating the crowd.

The market draws 50 vendors from across the region and the patrons, many of whom come from beyond the Brighton town line, eager to chat up the farmers, who often enthusiastically share recipes and plant care tips in return.

Toss in the food trucks and the whole thing has a festive flair. The market, one of the most popular in the suburbs, is as much a social gathering or block party as a farm stand.

But things will be a lot different at the market when it opens for the season at 9 a.m. on May 24 in the Brighton High School parking lot, just as they will for other area farmers markets. Gone will be the live music. Dogs will not be welcome. And wandering through the market aisles will be out of the question.

Organizers are requiring most patrons to pre-order from vendors and pre-pay. SNAP customers will have to pre-order and pay at the market booth. Vendors and customers will be required to wear face covers and follow physical distancing guidelines.

“A good farmers market is like a weekly fair or festival,” said Sue Gardner Smith, the market’s director. “People are wanting that back, but it won’t be the same.”

Gardner Smith explained that supporting local farmers at markets amid the COVID-19 pandemic necessitates drastic changes to keep both vendors and customers safe.

“Change is scary, COVID is scary,” she said. “There’s a lot about this that makes people uncomfortable.”

The Brighton market is hardly alone in adjusting its operations. For example, the Rochester Public Market, which has been open throughout the pandemic, will continue operating only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The Sunday festivities, garage sales, and food truck rodeos are gone. Face coverings are required for all shoppers and vendors.

Westside Farmers Market Director Jackie Farrell spent a recent morning ordering lumber to build hand-washing stations at the market, which is held Tuesdays in the parking lot of St. Monica’s Church in the 19th Ward.

The market will be a little smaller, too — probably 10 vendors instead of the typical 15 — and there will be other restrictions in place, Farrell explained. Volunteers will control the number of people in the market at any time, and everyone will have to wear a face covering. Vendors will be wearing gloves. Absent will be the music, the dining tent, yoga instruction, and the kids tent. Children will be allowed only if they are with a parent.

She said she hopes the planned changes make people comfortable with the idea of shopping there by the time it is scheduled to open on June 9.

“It will be a very different market,” Farrell said, adding that in recent years it’s served as a community gathering space here people come to see their friends and neighbors.

“It’s breaking my heart to change the market,” she added. “But it’s also important to me to keep the market going to support our farmers.”

The Fairport Farmers’ Market, which is set to open for the season on May 23 from 7 a.m. to noon, organizers want to provide people with an opportunity to shop outside for fresh produce. But they’re also taking steps to keep distance between shoppers and discourage lingering.

“We’re encouraging folks really to come in, get what you need, get out,” said Bryan White, Fairport’s village manager.

The market won’t have any entertainment, and vendors will only be able to sell food and food products. Staff will control the number of people in the market, everyone will have to wear a mask, and customers and vendors are being encouraged to conduct as many cashless transactions as possible, including the use of pre-order and pick-up arrangements.

“We’ll adapt as things change,” White said.