I am disappointed in the decision to re-open the farmers’ market in Chestertown this weekend, and worried about the consequences to the community.
Arguments for re-opening the market center on the ideas that it provides unique access to locally produced fresh food, that it is safer than our grocery stores, and that vendors need the market to sell their products. The first two arguments are bunk. The third is a straw man. One of the tragedies of the coronavirus catastrophe is significant economic pain for nearly everyone. Our community should strive to minimize that hardship for all of us, including farmers and other local food producers. There are ways to do it without reopening the market.
To dispense with the first argument, there are lots of other ways to get fresh local food than the Saturday morning market. Just a few of the available options include Guernsey Depot, Chestertown Natural Foods, and Fresh Start in Rock Hall. In addition, many market vendors are doing deliveries. Many have stands at their farms—meaning the produce has potentially passed through even fewer hands than at the market, and buyers can visit any time during the week for ultra-fresh food.
There are many other interesting and creative ideas for safer local food distribution. Some communities have created drive-through farmers’ markets. A weekly delivery service in the model of a CSA is another possibility. There could be an online map or even a mobile app highlighting farm stands and other places to buy vendors’ products, with maps, reviews, and comments. There is unlimited room for other creative ideas. The reality is that there is a lot of access to fresh, local food in Kent County, and there are many possibilities for expanding access without the market.
The second argument, that the farmers’ market is safer than the alternatives, is also not credible. Our local food stores have done a laudable job instituting safer practices Even in the Wilmer Park parking lot, and even with the rules that have been put in place, there are many reasons why the farmers’ market is less safe, and that reopening it poses an unwarranted risk to the community:
The market is only open for a few hours each week. Everyone has to come during the same short window of time. This means it’s impossible to operate the market while keeping the size of the gathering below 10 people as per state requirements. Even without customers, there will be far more than 10 people present, including a dozen or so vendors, plus volunteers, Chestertown police officers, and town workers. The latter two groups comprise people who will be required by their jobs to be present. These people will not be taking the risk voluntarily.
Multiple vendors means multiple purchase points. In other words there will be multiple potential points of contact for each customer and each vendor, every transaction compounding the risk of transmitting the virus. Vendors will use their phones to take payments, meaning credit cards and/or personal phones will pass back and forth between vendor and customer. Supermarkets are open all the time, so it’s easy to go when there are fewer people. You can check yourself out, limiting contact with people and objects.
The town has followed state guidelines in establishing rules about traffic flow and direction to try to minimize the risk of further community spread of the virus, but the fact of these rules illustrates the reality of the danger. The the new location and organization of the farmers’ market will be unfamiliar. People will not know the new rules. They will not follow them perfectly even if they do know them, because even with the best of intentions humans make mistakes, and because not everyone understands the danger or takes it seriously. Most importantly, even if the rules and protocols were observed perfectly, they exist only to reduce the risk—they cannot eliminate it.
The farmers’ market is a social scene, and we all love it. It’s part of what makes Chestertown special and wonderful. But there is no question that re-opening it at this point will increase the transmission of infections and hasten the spread of the COVID19 virus in our community. As hyperbolic as it sounds, the likelihood is that hastened spread will literally lead to deaths here, as it has in every other community around the world. Our hospital has 15 beds in normal times. Even with expanded capacity, the demand can easily outstrip the need if—probably when—the virus surges. This puts health care workers in an untenably dangerous position.
Epidemiologists, doctors, and public health experts have been warning us that this pandemic is serious and there is only one way to keep ourselves, our friends, families, neighbors, and the community at large safe. We are being told to stay home, to limit trips out in public. This a public health emergency, and the science is clear. Looking for loopholes and casting doubt on the facts is denying science and denying facts.
The social distancing practices that are necessary to flatten the curve are incompatible with the operation of the farmers’ market.
Maria Wood is the director of Chestertown RiverArts.