A woman peruses the wares of a yard sale in Orrington in this 2016 file photo. Credit: Micky Bedell

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Yard sales are a Maine summer tradition. However, this Memorial Day — which is usually the kick-off to yard and garage sale season in the Pine Tree State — saw fewer garage sales than usual due to fears and restrictions surrounding COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, and the fact that towns weren’t yet issuing permits.

Yard sales aren’t gone for good, though. In fact, after getting the go-ahead from the Maine Department of Economic & Community Development, Bangor recently began issuing yard sale permits again. (Not all cities in Maine require yard sale permits, so the first step for any potential garage sale coordinator is to check with their local code enforcement officer to see if one is required.)

Obtaining a permit is a little different than in years past, though. And prep work for the sale is shifting a bit, too.

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Along with permits, Jeff Wallace, director of code enforcement for the city of Bangor, said that the city sends along a checklist for large gatherings as recommended by the Department of Economic & Community Development and offers advice to anyone who wants to plan a yard sale in order to make sure their set up is safe.

The checklist provides recommendations in accordance with Centers for Disease Control recommendations: keep a six-foot social distance between guests, limit the number of attendees and encourage wearing masks where distancing isn’t possible. Wallace admitted that not all of the guidelines apply to yard sales — for example, registering guests or considering the professions of attendees.

“You’re not going to have any registered guests to your yard sale,” he said with a laugh. “Realistically do I think people having their yard sale are going to screen everybody coming through? I don’t know.”

Yard sales also have an advantage compared to some other organized gatherings because they are generally held outdoors, which reduces the risk of exposure to respiratory droplets from attendees. However, there are things that yard sale planners — and attendees — can do to make sure their event is pandemic friendly.

Crowd control

One of the most important aspects of a safe yard sale during a pandemic is to have some sort of system for crowd control. Designate at least one person to keep a head count while the yard sale is going on.

“I would make sure [to] have someone standing by to help me keep a rough headcount,” Wallace said. “If there are five people there, ask the sixth and seventh, ‘Hey, can you wait a minute or two?’”

Bridget Rauscher, chronic disease prevention program manager and local health officer at the Portland public health division, said that yard sale organizers should consider setting and enforcing “early bird” hours for vulnerable individuals.

“That’s also a great option with better chances of fewer people,” she said.

Rauscher also suggested following the lead of many businesses by making markings on the ground — a line of chalk or a strip of tape would suffice — that are six feet apart. Signs might also help remind customers of the rules and recommendations.

“Not that it currently isn’t fresh in everybody’s mind, but having a sign out with a few reminders for distancing and what not would help keep it in people’s mind,” Wallace said.

Organizing

Yard sale organizers can arrange their items in a way that limits the amount of people that touch them. For example, consider displaying items on tables rather than putting them in boxes for customers to rummage through.

“To prevent the touching, I would spread my goods out more,” Wallace said. “Maybe I spread the T-shirts out so people can see what they are without touching them.”

Though there has not yet been any documented transmission of the coronavirus through surfaces, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the virus remains viable on surfaces for days. Make sure your items are cleaned (and disinfected, if recommended and possible) following CDC guidelines before the customers arrive.

“If you’re selling a blender, try to give the blender a wipe down before you set it out on your display table,” Wallace said. “[For] clothes, run them through the washing machine and the dryer before you put them out.”

Have hand sanitizer readily available for customers. Wallace said that customers are going to touch the items regardless, so they might as well have the option to sanitize.

Masks

Requesting that customers wear masks — especially if your yard is small and it is difficult to maintain a six foot distance between people — is highly recommended for a pandemic-safe yard sale.

However, Wallace noted that some people have medical conditions that make wearing a mask difficult or unadvisable, so enforcing social distancing is paramount.

If you are holding a yard sale, consider offering free masks or selling masks at the entrance for customers that do not come equipped. (Wallace did, however, advise against selling used masks.)

Payments

Payments for yard sale items should be as contactless as possible. Rauscher suggested using Venmo or another payment app when possible and only taking exact change for cash transactions in an effort to limit the back and forth interactions.

Additionally, organizers and customers alike should wash hands or sanitize their hands after handling any sort of payment method.

“Money is one of the dirtiest things out there,” Wallace said. “Have some hand sanitizer readily available so you can do the best you can when you accept the money.”

Yard sale hosts could also take a cue from farmers markets, who have boxes that customers put money in. That way, the seller only has to touch the change with freshly gloved hands. Sellers may also want to consider using Facebook marketplace for bigger ticket items like furniture.

“I think that’s an adaptation of embracing technology when possible — that’s a great thing,” Wallace said.

Being a good guest

Attendees should use common sense and the CDC guidelines: bring masks, keep your distance and leave if it looks too crowded.

“Be cognizant of your six-foot bubble and others’,” Wallace said. “If it seems like it’s a highly popular yard sale and it seems kind of packed in, maybe it might not be the right time right now to swing in and look for the deals.”

Customers tend to be amenable to the rules, though. Rauscher said that she reviewed the safety recommendations with a Portland resident who reached out holding a yard sale.

“We talked through encouraging the use of face coverings and social distancing when promoting the sale, as well as being vigilant about limiting the number of shoppers to ten or less,” Rauscher explained. “She followed up and let me know that people were happy to comply and she offered gloves and sanitizer to people to use while they were there.”

Still, Wallace said to expect people to bend the rules — in his words, “people are going to do people things.” If you are not comfortable with this or at risk for the virus, it may be wise to skip yard sale season this year altogether. After all, the Maine tradition will return when the pandemic is over.