Maine farmers markets Credit: Sarah Walker Caron

Our COVID-19 tracker contains the latest on Maine cases by county. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.

Maine’s farmers markets are an important part of the state’s local food landscape. Now with the first cases of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, confirmed in the state, the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets wants market customers and the public to know they are taking immediate and proactive steps to ensure markets are safe places to shop during the pandemic.

“We want to assure markets are not a source of spreading the virus,” said Jimmy Debiasi, director of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets. “We also want our markets to be proactive in light of the epidemic and that is really just good marketing to fully communicate what we are doing and to reassure the public.”

According to Debiasi, the winter markets play an important role in their communities as access points for local food and for social interaction.

“We have to assume a certain responsibility to make sure [the markets] are a safe and welcoming place to all,” he said. This means the state’s markets, long a gathering place where food, music and socializing are enjoyed, are about to become a lot more quiet and less social.

Part of making sure the winter markets are as safe as they can be, Debiasi said organizers are encouraged to streamline their markets to discourage the public from gathering in large numbers or lingering onsite.

[Here are answers to questions from BDN readers about the new coronavirus]

To limit those gatherings Debiasi said the federation is recommending organizers do away with any onsite consumption of food, including seating and designated eating areas. They also urge cancelling any music or other special activities that also encourage people to congregate in close proximity to each other for extending periods of time.

The Bangor Winter Farmers’ Market, held the first and third Sunday at 50 Cleveland St. through April, traditionally does not attract that many people, according to its secretary and farmer Debra Vermette, so organizers decided it will take place this Sunday as planned. However, she said the organizers are taking steps to keep vendors and consumers safe and healthy.

“We had thought of moving the market outside this Sunday, but the weather does not look good for that,” Vermette said. “But some vendors have said they plan to set up outside anyway.”

Inside the market the information booth will be well-stocked with hand sanitizer and there will be handwashing stations available throughout the venue. All food sold at the market will be prepackaged and sold in those packages by the vendors to reduce human contact of the items as much as possible.

On Friday organizers of the Orono Winter Farmers Market announced Saturday’s market will take place in the parking lot at Asa Adams Elementary School and not in the gym where it regularly is held.

[Read our full coronavirus coverage here]

The farmers market federation is promoting common sense hygiene practices and indoor market organizers have been asked to make sure they have someone on hand at all times responsible for regularly applying disinfectant to all exit and bathroom door handles in addition to discouraging any practice that encourages people to touch food and then their faces, such as offering free samples of produce or other items.

What the federation is not doing is suggesting any markets be canceled or that people who are not in the high risk group for the virus stop attending them.

Debiasi noted that farmers markets are essential activities where individuals and families who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and who participate in the Maine Harvest Bucks program double the monetary value of those benefits.

“For many residents of Maine farmers markets are essential food access points,” he said. “They are a haven for people with allergies or looking for organic food for themselves and loved ones.”

Vermette pointed out the food purchased at local farmers markets is likely safer than that found in supermarkets.

[Here’s what has been canceled or postponed in Maine due to coronavirus]

“Because it is locally grown and locally sold, it has a shorter route to the consumer,” she said. “That means it has gone through far fewer hands.

The recommendations were emailed out Friday morning to the groups membership and target the state’s indoor winter markets for now. If COVID-19 continues to be a concern into the summer farmers market season in Maine, Debiasi said the federation will discuss recommendations including promoting direct farmer to consumer sales to reduce the crowds at markets.

The National Farmers Market Coalition has created a resource with detailed information for market organizers and participants available on their website at farmersmarketcoalition.org.

Watch: Symptoms of the coronavirus disease

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.