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Baltimore’s downtown farmers market opens for business, but not as usual, with coronavirus-related restrictions

Opening day of the 43rd season of the Baltimore Farmers' Market includes new rules to reduce the risk of infection from coronavirus.

It was not quite a typical Sunday at the Baltimore Farmers’ Market & Bazaar, which welcomed shoppers for the first time this year.

There was no music in the air, smoke wafting from grills or line of shoppers waiting for coffee. Instead, signs urged visitors to stay in groups of four or fewer and to “shop with your eyes,” rather than by touch. Hand-washing stations and sanitizer were scattered about the marketplace beneath the Jones Falls Expressway.

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A line to enter the slightly smaller-than-usual market snaked down Holliday and East Saratoga streets as market organizers staggered entry to limit crowds. Crowds can number in the thousands in the market’s walkways on the busiest Sundays, but on this Sunday, organizers made sure there were no more than 250 people at any given time — vendors included.

“We had to take a really different approach to the market than we have in all the years past to operate it safely,” said Sam Hanson, who manages the market for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. It had been scheduled to open April 5, but organizers delayed that amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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But the changes aside, shoppers like Norma Graham of West Baltimore were happy to be back. Graham put on a pair of latex gloves and a tie-dyed face mask and took the bus from West Baltimore.

She had hoped for some grilled kebabs for lunch, but perhaps the biggest change to the market in the age of coronavirus is a lack of hot prepared foods, for now. Still, Graham said she wasn’t disappointed.

“I got my greens,” she said. “That’s the main thing.”

Vendors came not quite sure what to expect.

Pierson Geyer, director of operations for Agriberry Farm, said he is used to selling out of the strawberries, blackberries and blueberries he drives up every week from the Richmond, Virginia, area. This time, he brought a refrigerated truck, so he could take any unsold berries back for processing into jam.

It was Ficker Farm Hemp’s first time selling at the downtown market, and any farmers market, because of what Denise Banjavic called “hesitation and misunderstanding” about its products, which include teas and dog treats. Hemp is a type of cannabis that contains CBD, a nonintoxicating compound used to treat pain, insomnia and anxiety, but with little or no THC, the compound most associate with marijuana.

Crowd limitations aside, “We’ve had some great sales,” Banjavic said.

The Curry Shack returned to the market with the direction that it couldn’t sell its popular samosas and curry dishes hot, but it could package them up for shoppers to take home. Owner Didi Johnson said she knew it would be an adjustment for people, but was still surprised by how many customers were dismayed to learn they couldn’t eat on the premises, as usual.

“People are happy we are here, but they’re missing the way it used to be,” said Johnson, who said she is still selling the food hot at the year-round 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly on Saturdays. “Downtown is a very social market. It’s a social gathering.”

Among the disappointed shoppers were Mariah Lee and Joe Maye, city residents who came in a small group, looking for the hot turkey burgers and fresh doughnuts they typically enjoy. Lee said she expected more vendors and variety, though she was glad to see there was plenty of hand sanitizer.

Hanson said organizers will remain flexible as the season goes on, hopeful they can relax some restrictions, welcome back more vendors and reexpand the market’s footprint.

But for now, to Maye, the difference was in the air. “I like to smell the farmers market,” he said, pulling down his black sequined mask. There was no scent.

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