The Sunday after the governor’s order, two of our vendors took preorders and just showed up in our normal space and time. This inspired us and reminded us of our commitment to provide local produce to our community and keep our vendors afloat. Supermarkets were staying open, and we are, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), an open-air grocery store.
Over the next few days, we followed the lead of the Virginia Farmers Market Association and scrambled to figure out a way to keep the market running while complying with guidelines issued by the VDACS. That Sunday, we opened with a new design and a new set of rules: only preorders and “grab-and-go” items. Limits on the number of people in the market at once. And no socializing — get your food and leave.
We created one entrance (equipped with bottles of hand sanitizer donated by generous friends) and one exit so we could regulate the number of people. We taped bright yellow lines so customers kept a safe distance from vendors and one other. Volunteers monitored the crowd size, gently but firmly asking people to avoid congregating.
In the early weeks, most of our customers wore face coverings before it was widely recommended. We quickly required masks to enter the market.
Two months later, just as many people are coming to the market as came this time in the season last year — and plenty of new patrons have discovered us. Nearly all of our vendors have set up online preordering or joined the market’s online platform. Because there are so many preorders, the market stays relatively busy even when the weather stinks.
And the Arlington Food Assistance Center continues to collect the leftover produce at a time when its services are needed more than ever.
The one thing we hear over and over from our customers is that they feel safe at our market, and that’s why they keep coming. And while we’ve all read about the protests and harassment (or worse) of people trying to enforce safety measures, our market-goers have been not just cooperative but grateful. One neighbor expressed her “applause to everyone at Westover Farmers Market for making everything run smoothly. . . . Whatever I am able to purchase has truly minimized my need to go to a grocery store.”
We are committed to keeping this new model for the rest of the season — and likely well beyond it. But we are learning as we go, constantly looking for ways to improve safety — sometimes midmarket! Infectious disease expert Anthony S. Fauci said it best: “You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline.”
As long as public health experts tell us safety measures are necessary, we will do what we need to do. We want this to be over as soon as everyone else does. Meanwhile, we are acclimating to this new era while keeping our vendors in business and Arlingtonians’ refrigerators and pantries full.