Operators of farmers markets should consider the possibility that the COVID-19 outbreak may continue to be a threat well into the summer and should develop a plan to safeguard their customers and employees, according to Penn State Extension experts.

Each day brings new information and concern about COVID-19 and its impact on our lives, noted Luke LaBorde, professor of food safety in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Extension produce safety specialist. If the threat of this rapidly spreading viral disease lingers, social distancing and limitations on public gatherings could adversely impact farmers markets, he warned.
Farmers markets are mostly open-air venues that, by their nature, might have the advantage of being less risky than grocery stores for some transmission of the virus among and between employees and customers, agreed Brian Moyer, Extension educator specializing in business and community vitality.

“But certain actions, such as creating wider spaces between vendors and growers, may allow for more air circulation and additional room to maintain social distancing,” he said.

Laborde and Moyer recommend the following methods for minimizing the transmission of coronavirus at farmers markets:

Prepare Market & Individual Stands

  • Have fully stocked handwashing and sanitizing stations in place at multiple locations, and post signs that inform everyone where hand sanitizing materials are available and that show the correct way to wash hands.
  • Put up signs and provide information on websites and social media to explain any changes, delivery options or extra precautions taken to limit exposure to the coronavirus. For example, instruct customers not to handle food. Package cheese and eggs for customers, even if the products are individually packaged. Open egg cartons for customers to see the eggs they are getting instead of having them handle multiple cartons.
  • Prepackage bags of fruits, vegetables and other items to limit shoppers’ handling of food and so that customers move along quickly.
  • Consider alternate pick-up, drive-thru, curb service or delivery options to keep crowd levels low. Encourage customers to avoid lining up too close to each other when making purchases.
  • Separate stands, if possible, to limit crowds, and try to maintain a separation between stands of at least six feet. Consider limiting the number of customers within your market at one time in the case of “panic shopping.”
  • If possible, have different people handle products and money, and make sure they wash their hands or use a hand sanitizer between these tasks.
  • Utilize card readers that allow customers to swipe their credit cards, thus protecting both them and your employees. Disable the signature function on your point-of-sale system to limit contact from multiple customers.
  • Use nonporous tablecloths, and clean and sanitize them regularly.
  • Do not allow customers to sample products.
  • Eliminate market events, children’s activities and gathering areas, and encourage customers not to linger in the market.
  • Eliminate eating areas, and gently direct customers to take prepared foods home to avoid crowds.

Prepare Your Workforce

  • Train your staff to wash their hands regularly and frequently with soap and water, including scrubbing for 20 seconds, especially after they blow their nose, cough or sneeze.
  • Have hand sanitizer dispensers readily available, and provide signage to alert vendors and customers to the importance of hand sanitation and where they can find sanitizing materials on site.
  • Train them to maintain at least a six-foot distance between them and customers – that’s two to three arm-lengths.
  • Stagger your lunchtimes or provide additional space to increase the distancing of employees.
  • Anyone on the premises who shows symptoms of a severe cold or flu, such as high fever, coughing and difficulty breathing, should be sent home. Consider the possibility that you may have a shortage of workers. You may need a plan to hire temporary workers.
  • Encourage your staff not to handle customers’ reusable bags. You may wish to set up an area to the side of the display area where customers can pay for their purchase.
  • Train your staff to know that visitors over the age of 60 or who have pre-existing conditions, including diabetes and other chronic diseases, are at a higher risk for becoming ill if they acquire the virus.
  • Consider offering early-hour shopping for these higher-risk customers.

Sanitize Contact Surfaces

  • Frequently disinfect tabletops, door handles, cash boxes, credit card machines, shopping baskets and other contact surfaces with EPA-registered sanitizer sprays or wipes labeled as effective against viruses. Do not purchase sanitizers from suppliers who claim their products kill viruses without showing proof of efficacy.
  • Frequently clean and sanitize common gathering places such as restrooms, break rooms and meeting rooms.

For more information from Penn State Extension about COVID-19, go to extension.psu.edu/coronavirus.