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Food

Farmers markets will stay open in L.A. County

Santa Monica farmers market
A customer browses among the squash and pumpkins grown by Tutti Frutti Farms in Lompoc, at the Santa Monica farmers market.
(David Karp)

Bar, gyms, and movie theaters may have been forced to close because of coronavirus concerns, but farmers markets have been deemed essential and will continue to operate, under modified conditions, in Los Angeles County.

Farmers markets in Beverly Hills, Claremont, Culver City and Rancho Palos Verdes announced temporary closures in the last week; there was a lingering fear among farmers and shoppers that the same fate would befall other markets across the county.

But according to official guidelines published Sunday evening by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, “to ensure that fresh food is available to residents,” outdoor certified farmers markets will be allowed to operate under these main conditions:

  • Only “whole uncut produce and packaged food” can be sold; no booths that prepare food on site, such as taco or barbecue stands, can operate. (Foods prepared and packaged at off-site commercial kitchens appear to be permitted.)
  • No sampling of unpackaged food is permitted.
  • Market managers must ensure that “crowds are staggered to ensure for social distancing of customers,” and allow space between stands.
  • Markets must provide handwashing stations and signs reminding customers to wash their hands and the produce they buy.

From a regulatory standpoint, certified farmers markets have always been divided into two parts, an agricultural section where farmers sell produce, and a nonagricultural or community event section for prepared foods, crafts, musicians and pony rides. The new guidelines, which take effect immediately and apply through April 30, have the effect of restricting the community events while allowing farmers to continue to sell.

The key issue resolved by the guidelines was whether farmers markets provided an essential service, like grocery stores, that should be maintained despite the recommendation by Gov. Gavin Newsom to cancel gatherings of 250 or more people.

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Farmers markets will look different under the new guidelines. Joyce Chan, manager of the Torrance farmers market, which closed temporarily starting last Saturday, is working on a plan to reopen that she will present today to city authorities for approval, she said by phone Monday morning. The layout will be revised so that customers enter and exit the market at separate, controlled points, and the line for entrance will be managed to prevent congestion; only farmers will be allowed to sell, and farm stands will be at least 10 feet apart, to allow enough space for customers to be six feet apart.

“The new guidelines are welcome, because they maintain access to fresh produce while protecting the health of the public, farmers and city staff,” said Chan.

Multiple authorities decide whether a farmers market can operate. The market sponsor or operator and the city in which a market is located can decide to suspend it; some that have already done so may now reopen.

Around California, county Departments of Public Health appear to be taking the lead in deciding whether farmers markets can continue to operate and establishing guidelines if they do; it is currently unclear whether the California Department of Public Health will try to coordinate a uniform policy statewide.

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Some of the shoppers who formed unprecedented long lines to stock up at the farmers markets that remained open last weekend were glad that farmers markets will continue.

“It’s a huge relief. We can’t get the same high-quality, local, organic produce at supermarkets, so it would be very, very upsetting if farmers markets had to shut down,” said Diane Alancraig, a freelance flautist who shops weekly with her husband at the Hollywood market, in a phone interview Monday morning.

“I do wonder how the new rules will work in terms of crowd control,” she added.

A group of market managers is meeting by phone this afternoon to come up with ways to implement the new guidelines.

“The health authorities rapidly came up with a very reasonable plan and we’re grateful to them,” said Diana Rodgers, manager of the Mar Vista farmers market. “Yesterday, farmers and customers were freaking out wondering what was going to happen.”


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