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Opinion: Farmers markets can’t stay open if L.A. keeps treating them like spring break

As pictured in 2013--the  Brentwood farmers market on a Sunday on Gretna Green Way between San Vicente Boulevard and Montana Ave
The Brentwood farmers market, shown on a Sunday in 2013, draws lines of shoppers to Gretna Green Way between San Vicente Boulevard and Montana Avenue.
(Los Angeles Times)

The outraged messages cascaded down my Nextdoor and Facebook sites on Sunday, all prompted by photos of throngs of people gathered at what looked like a street festival. It was the Brentwood farmers market on Sunday, and, clearly, shoppers were not practicing social distancing.

“Why are people in Brentwood not abiding by social distancing guidelines?? This is NOT okay!” someone posted on Central Brentwood Nextdoor. By the end of the day, dozens had echoed that comment, Katherine Schwarzenegger (daughter of Arnold and Maria; wife of actor Chris Pratt) had tweeted her own concern over the market being open, and one person declared, “It needs to be shut down!!! All the farmers markets need to be shut down!”

And that’s exactly what Mayor Eric Garcetti did barely 24 hours later. Rather than single out the Brentwood market for scolding at his daily news briefing Monday, he said during the last weekend that “some of our farmers markets became too crowded.” So he suspended all farmers markets in the city, but allowed individual markets to reopen once they’d filed plans with the Bureau of Street Services showing how they would limit ingress and egress and maintain social distancing.

“Katherine Schwarzenegger Begs L.A. Mayor to Close Packed Farmer’s Market, He Does,” exulted TMZ.

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Yeah, I don’t think that was quite the sequence of events. The mayor and a number of city officials heard from a lot of people on this. And that’s good. We want people to object when they see businesses not enforcing the rules that are intended to save lives.

Going for a walk is one of the few outdoor activities we’re still allowed to do under California’s coronavirus lockdown. Stop ruining it.

Over the last few weeks, our physical universe has narrowed. Restaurants closed, then gyms. After we flocked to the beaches and hiking trails, those got closed down too. But somehow farmers markets were the outliers — or the outlaws, depending on how you look at it. They stayed open, albeit for the same good reasons that grocery stores stayed open. We need healthy produce and food. Never mind Brentwood, where there’s a surfeit of indoor stores with good produce. There are parts of the city where farmers markets are the only places — or the best places — to buy fresh food.

Grocery stores and supermarkets have by and large done a great job of setting up and policing an elaborate safety protocol — shoppers wait in line, six feet apart, to enter the store, their numbers inside are strictly limited; then they wait in line, six feet apart, to check out.

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But the thing about a farmers market is that it’s like a grocery store in a park. And we’ve all seen what happens when we leave the parks open. Of course, if you go on farmers market Facebook pages, they all say they are dedicated to complying with social distancing, setting new safety standards, and telling people to touch only what they will buy. (Wow, I’d have a hard time obeying that edict in the produce section at Ralphs.)

The Brentwood farmers market Facebook page now pledges to “continue to increase safety standards each week.” (Still, under “Reviews,” there are some nasty comments about the fact that the market had been open at all.)

We need to try to keep farmers markets open, particularly in communities that desperately need them. But we can’t have events where crowds, lulled by the breezy outdoors, abandon their new social distancing skills and linger around each other and food stalls, turning the entire market into some potential viral nightmare that will be the opening scene of at least one of the 85 movies that will be made about this epidemiological dystopia we are living through.

The mayor did the right thing in suspending the markets. But the city must do the right thing by making it easy — not just less difficult — for farmers markets to submit their safety plans and get them approved. This can’t be a typical bureaucratic wait-forever process to get the city‘s approval. Make farmers markets show they can comply and then let them reopen — quickly.

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And other cities in the county need to be as tough on the farmers markets as Garcetti has been. In L.A. County, farmers markets have permits from the Department of Public Health. On Tuesday, Barbara Ferrer, the director of that department, said that county inspectors were out last weekend and will be out again this coming weekend to make sure people are complying. That’s good. Let’s hope it works. The county guidance also suggests designating one employee to make sure the distancing rules are maintained by those waiting to get into the market and lining up at the stalls. For any markets that do not already have that designated enforcer, they need to get one immediately.


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