xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement

‘People need to eat’: Making sense of why some Maryland farmers markets are open during the coronavirus pandemic

John McKeown, owner of Locust Point Flowers, makes an arrangement for a customer at the 32nd Street Farmers Market on Saturday, April 4, 2020. Vendors and customers, some wearing protective masks and gloves due to the coronavirus pandemic, continue the 40 year tradition of Baltimore's only year-round market.
John McKeown, owner of Locust Point Flowers, makes an arrangement for a customer at the 32nd Street Farmers Market on Saturday, April 4, 2020. Vendors and customers, some wearing protective masks and gloves due to the coronavirus pandemic, continue the 40 year tradition of Baltimore's only year-round market.(Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Most Saturdays, Laurel and Andre Mendes leave their home in Hampden — she in her wheelchair and he on foot — to make the mile-long trek to the 32nd Street Farmers Market and stock up on fresh produce.

“The market is one of the great joys of living in Baltimore,” Laurel Mendes, 60, said.

Advertisement

“After I moved here in 2003, it gave me an anchor to this city. I grew up in California, so having access to fresh produce every day is absolute life for me.”

Mendes finds it easier to maneuver between stalls in the year-round, outdoor market than through narrow grocery store aisles.

Advertisement

On some trips, she helps out a homebound neighbor by exchanging federal vouchers for food. The market accepts these coupons; the nearest grocery store does not.

“Farmers markets are a critical resource for so many people,” Mendes said.

Vendors and customers, some wearing protective masks and gloves due to the coronavirus pandemic, continue the 40 year tradition of the 32nd Street Farmers Market on Saturday, April 4, 2020.
Vendors and customers, some wearing protective masks and gloves due to the coronavirus pandemic, continue the 40 year tradition of the 32nd Street Farmers Market on Saturday, April 4, 2020. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

As Maryland struggles to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, some of the 107 markets listed in the 2020 Maryland Farmers Market Directory are open — the Saturday morning 32nd Street Market among them.

Others — such as the Baltimore Farmers Market beneath the Jones Falls Expressway — are not. The popular downtown market had been scheduled to begin its season Sunday. But the 2020 launch was postponed to an as yet undetermined date by the Baltimore Office of Promotions and the Arts.

The usual Sunday market "straddles the line between being a mini-festival and a food store,” said Tracy Baskerville, communications director for the promotions office.

“In addition to the farmers, there are food vendors and artists selling their wares. We get 5,000 visitors on an average Sunday, and more during the peak season. We’re looking to see if we might open a bit later in a slightly different capacity.”

The recent flurry of new restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in confusion among Maryland residents and business owners who want to follow Gov. Larry Hogan’s safety orders but aren’t always sure how to interpret them.

That’s especially true for outdoor markets, which traditionally have attracted large and relaxed crowds. Visitors can often chat with neighbors, try a new cuisine and listen to live music while buying locally grown fruits and vegetables.

Some residents have called their local police departments to report markets that the residents thought were violating the governor’s prohibitions of gatherings of more than 10 people, according to Juliet Glass, external relations manager for the Maryland Farmers Market Association, a trade group.

Other markets were temporarily shuttered by the municipalities in which they’re located.

For instance, the Chestertown Farmers Market was ordered closed by town officials from March 16 to May 15 in an effort to safeguard public health. A hearing on whether to restore the market’s permit is scheduled for Monday.

“People need to eat,” said Julie King, who operates the Chestertown market.

Advertisement

“We have vendors who rely on these markets for their entire incomes. I honestly believe we can put protocols into place that will help keep people safe, and that our vendors and residents would be super-receptive to them.”

The disagreement about whether outdoor markets represent more benefits than risks is not confined to Maryland.

On March 30, Los Angeles shut down its markets —but two days later allowed some to re-open. On April 1, the New York Times ran an article headlined, “Why Outdoor Farmers Markets Matter More Than Ever.”

The law in Maryland is straightforward: food markets, like grocery stores, are considered to be essential businesses and are allowed to continue operating.

“We view farmers markets as similar to the way we view grocery stores,“ said Jason Schellhardt, director of communications for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

“Especially for people who get SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits, farmers markets are a really important source of fresh vegetables and produce.

“However, the markets should be implementing social distancing and deep cleaning and generally taking every precaution they can to mitigate the possibility of contamination.“

Glass said her 40 members are making every effort to comply with new safety requirements.

“The first thing that went away are the big bins of fruits and vegetables that people were rifling through,” she said.

“The tents are spaced out more. A lot of farmers are are taking pre-orders so customers can just pick up their vegetables and leave. Many farmers are doing touchless payments.”

She thinks it’s not just vendors but the public who are having to rethink the farmers market experience.

“People have always liked outdoor markets because they provide a more enjoyable shopping environment,” she said.

“You’re outside and you see your friends. But you can’t do that anymore. You have to go alone or with one family member, do your shopping and leave. Treat it like a surgical strike.”

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement