Get in, Get out! The challenges of Farmers Markets Reopening
By Laura Stortz
Farmers markets are gradually reopening across Ontario. Farmers markets are considered essential workplaces so over the past few weeks many have been asking why farmers markets haven’t reopened. Farmers markets are often a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces but are often very crowded due to the large influx of customers in a shorter time period than stores that operate all days of the week. Additionally, farmers markets are a community hub where people gather to not only shop, but chat, eat and listen to music together.
Farmers markets are under the purview of their local health unit. Under Ontario’s Emergency Order there are two models of farmers markets that can operate at this time. First, protocols for the conventional multi-vendor, multi-stand market where customers can come and shop include modifications like: physical distancing, mostly food sellers, increased circulation and flow to limit time and interaction between shoppers/vendors, and increased cleaning. Second, there are protocols for markets that switch to an e-commerce/e-market model with a drive/walk-through pickup of pre-ordered and prepaid products. The e-commerce market model includes traffic circulation, a pick-up plan that includes staggered times, socially distanced pick-up plans, and increased sanitation.
Small businesses are resilient, many vendors have pivoted towards e-commerce models to reach their customers and avoid losses. In Waterloo Region and Wellington-Dufferin Country many sellers quickly shifted to either online sales or phone orders with pick-up points or farm gate pick up. Although some operators, especially if their cultural/religious beliefs prohibit technology, have not been able to rapidly change their business models and remain eager to return to the markets. Pivoting to online sales is complicated by spotty internet connections in rural areas as well as adoption costs. Christina Mann, the Guelph Taste Real Coordinator, said that 3/6 markets in the region decided that they would shift to a pick-up method but that some said that the e-commerce model was too complicated. The Guelph-Wellington markets, with support of Taste Real Local Food and the region, facilitated online sales by promoting vendors’ websites/farm-gate sales. Some markets in the region continued to operate as a pick-up point with added precautions and restrictions. For example, the Orangeville market has an online store where customers can shop from participating vendors. The City of Guelph provided information to customers with maps of where each vendor was located in the Guelph physical market that corresponded to their websites. The City of Guelph has continually promoted local vendors through their e-newsletter and have individually connected customers with vendors.
Farmers markets are often considered to be the antithesis of conventional grocery stores and these new regulations may change the community feel and connection to growers that shoppers love. Shoppers will not be able to touch each item and inspect them and price comparison may become more difficult. The new regulations may decrease sales due to decreased foot traffic after weeks of uncertainty and add costs to the market operators.
The implications of added costs depends on the public/private ownership structure of the markets. Added complications include whether markets are run by staff or volunteers. For example, at the publicly operated Guelph Farmers Market added compliance costs are not as big of a concern as managing risk because added cases would add costs to public health. Dana Evans, General Manager- Culture, Tourism and Community Investment, says that borrowing staff from other facilities that are operating at decreased capacity is an option so that compliance to best-practices at the farmers market is possible. She estimates that the market may need about triple the amount of staff to ensure the safety of vendors and customers. Vendors have flexible rental schedules for their space and vendors who paid ahead of time were refunded for the time the market was closed. The vendor rates will not increase due to the increased costs as vendors are already struggling and increased costs would add to their burden. Evans remarked that while most vendors are keen to return to the market, some who have successfully adapted to online pick-up sales may not return for the foreseeable future.
The Guelph market will definitely look different upon reopening. During high market season, the market has about 120 vendors who may see 5000 people over a 5 hour period. Strategies to ensure social distancing may include longer hours or a mix of pick-up and physical shopping. Masks will be encouraged and capacity will be limited. There will be a two cash-register option for customers who must pay in cash. Evans highlighted that ensuring flexible payment options is essential especially as many families have faced financial hardship and may be limited by whatever cash they have.
The St. Jacobs market and the Kitchener Market operate under the Waterloo Region Public Health Unit. The St. Jacobs market operates on private property but within public health units’ jurisdiction. They have worked with the Waterloo Region Public Health Unit on reopening strategies. They have a few guidelines on reopening. First, shoppers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the vendors they plan to visit and create a plan to efficiently shop alone. Vendors are located 20 feet apart and there are designated line ups and traffic flow with appropriate spacing. The number of vendors have been reduced. There are 27 confirmed vendors indoors who are selling prepared products and meats. There are 55 vendors in the outdoor markets.
The shopping experience at the Kitchener Market will be pared down to the basics as well. Less vendors and customers will be allowed in the space at one time, only vendors selling ready made foods and fresh grocery items will be allowed to operate. There will be a dedicated seniors’ shopping hour from 7-8am. More staff have been allocated to monitor access points, including elevator capacity and one-way movement through the market. While customers can pay with cash, the cash will be placed in a separate holding unit and change will be made from another cash float. There is also pre-order pickup although it is inside the market.
Farmers Markets of Ontario’s protocols for operating:
1) A multi-vendor, multi-stand market where:
a. The landlord/ownder approves
b. They contact their local public health unit (PHU) and present a plan (including a diagram showing a proposed market layout and a complete list of vendors and their products) and review this protocol adapting the plan, as required by the PHU, based on their operation/location.
c. The majority of vendors must be selling food, other consumer products and art and craft may be sold.
d. Stands are spaced out and customer circulation is monitored or controlled (perhaps one-way movement) to maintain social distancing and shoppers time at the market.
e. The FMO COVID-19 Fact/Info Sheet is posted and seen by all vendors and shoppers.
f. The names of all vendors selling are recorded for each market day and the records are maintained.
g. Washroom(s) and/or hand sanitizer station(s) is/are available for all shoppers/vendors to wash their hands as required.
h. Washroom(s)/hand washing station(s) are properly stocked and frequently cleaned and disinfected.
i. There is no sampling of food.
j. There is no use of reusable or customer supplied containers.
k. There are no communal tables or seating.
2) If individual markets plan to operate an e-commerce model with a drive/walk-through pickup of pre-ordered and prepaid products, market managers/organizers must ensure:
· Their landlord/property owner approves.
· The majority of vendors must be selling food; other consumer products and art and craft may be offered for on-line sale.
· They contact their local public health unit to confirm the operating procedures for their specific operation to maintain social distancing and proper handwashing and sanitizing protocols, including:
o A written plan showing traffic circulation.
o A delivery plan based on the number of orders and drive-up customers – if there are a lot, consider staggering times for pickup based on last names (A-E 9-9:30am, F-J 9:30 -10am etc.) and
§ those who drive must stay in their vehicle with orders placed in their vehicles by vendors/volunteers.
§ those who walk must be kept 2 metres (6’) apart with orders placed on a table for them to pick-up to maintain social distancing.
§ vendors/volunteers must maintain social distancing.
o Hand washing/alcohol-based hand sanitizing facilities are available for vendors/volunteers.
o Vendors/volunteers are screened for COVID-19, confirming they:
§ Have no symptoms (fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat or shortness of breath).
§ Have not travelled outside of Canada in the past 14 days.
§ Have not been in contact with a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19.
o Surfaces where orders are placed or organized are cleaned and disinfected regularly (with household cleaners or diluted bleach solution of 1-part bleach to 9 parts water).
o Food products are packaged and orders must be prepackaged in new, single use boxes or bags and labelled with customer names or order numbers.
o Refrigerated and frozen products must be maintained at proper temperatures.
Recommended citation format: Stortz, Laura. "Get in, Get out! The challenges of Farmers Markets Reopening ". Food Focus Guelph (91), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, July 6, 2020.