The Challenge of Indoor Market Operations During a Pandemic
By: Diana Broadaway Posted On: May 4, 2021
In the Fall of 2020, Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) brought together a small group of winter market operators into a Community of Practice (CoP). That group was faced with the daunting challenge of trying to operate their usual indoor market spaces while following CDC protocols for mandates and restrictions. This small group participated in monthly discussions around a variety of topics, including market characteristics and design, changing venues, shifting market models, capacity limits, mask-wearing, and ADA compliance, COVID-positive vendor protocols, fundraising, and brand awareness. The group included market leaders from across the country. Market locations represented include:
- Brattleboro, VT
- Montpelier, VT
- Dayton, OH
- Maple Grove, MN
- Berea, KY
- Lexington, KY
- Corvallis and Albany, OR
In addition to these individual markets, network leaders from Kentucky and Maine also joined this community to share and learn, bringing knowledge and experience from their own state and taking new resources and information back to the market operators in their networks.
Over the course of five months, market leaders shared past and current experiences with their operations, anticipated challenges, and proposed solutions. There were common and unique obstacles faced by each of these markets with local guidelines, capacity limitations, and resource availability all playing a role in operational responses to COVID-19.
Market Characteristics and Design
Our time together highlighted some of the limitations (and lack of resources for issues) faced by indoor and/or winter season markets which may not impact outdoor spring/summer markets. Many of the operators in this CoP faced significant obstacles to operating indoor at all, due to space restrictions and other limitations which made redesigning market layouts difficult. Discussion among members of this group suggested the following factors should be considered in operating markets indoors in any public health emergency:
- Assessing the type of building used (enclosed, pavilion, etc.)
- Knowing the average number of visitors
- Number of vendors allowed within space available
- Positioning of anchor vendors (near the entrance, exit, other)
- Creating enough distance between vendors
- Single or multiple points of entry/exit
- Adequate ventilation (windows, ceiling fans, etc.)
- Hybrid/multi-model market (online pre-order/pickup plus walk-up)
- Number of handwashing or sanitizing stations and space for each
- Limiting entry (reservations, timed entry, etc.)
- Requiring a one-way visitor flow
- Allowing visitor re-entry or lingering shoppers
FMC solicited USDA-AMS Architectural Services for assistance with a basic design for indoor market layout and customer flow which can be seen below. This sketch should not be seen as official guidance from the USDA, but rather a simple visual representation of how a market might modify its typical walk-up design to create an efficient, socially distanced model:
Creating flexibility within market operations was another key takeaway.
- How to operate a hybrid model, combining both pre-order online/pickup and modified walk-thru operations?
- Assessing the capacity to pivot to 100% online operations if necessary
- Having a mechanism in place for order pick-up (“curbside”) and/or delivery
Some indoor market operators opted instead to move some of all of their vendors outdoors, incorporating modifications to the typical outdoor setup where necessary. These modifications may have included:
- Using pavilion space to create outward-facing stalls/tents which provide some shelter to vendors and product but keeps customers outside (similar to shed market designs)
- Moving outdoor operations to more sheltered space where structures or trees block wind or otherwise help protect vendors and product from elements
- Providing heaters
- Allowing vendors to operate from vehicles
- Dividing vendors between indoor and outdoor space to ensure adherence to social distancing guidelines and restrictions on crowd size
For those in colder climates, the cohort discussed how outdoor operations in the winter may not be a reasonable option even with these accommodations. In those cases, market operators had to consider changing venues to allow ample space for social distancing among vendors and visitors – which can be an issue. For the Maple Grove Farmers Market in Minnesota, the 2020 winter market season brought the market’s first change in venue since it began operations in 2004. The new site was an empty retail space in a local shopping mall which allowed enough room for social distancing among vendors and customers without requiring one-way foot traffic – even at full capacity (130 people). A map of the market demonstrates how this new space allowed for appropriate distancing between vendors and sufficient square footage for movement and spacing of visitors.
Managing Multiple Challenges
During a pandemic, changes in venue and market model are not the only potential obstacles to successful indoor (or outdoor) operations. Members of this community of practice also expressed concern about next steps when market staff or vendors tested positive for COVID and the need to establish clear protocols, including contacting public health authorities to determine potential risks to the community, and the market’s responsibilities with respect to contact tracing requirements and public disclosure mandates.
Similar to outdoor farmers markets, indoor markets operating during the pandemic also faced new considerations around legal issues, particularly as it pertained to mask-wearing, and used the community of practice to share tips, techniques, and new ideas for conflict resolution. FMC’s Farmers Market Legal Toolkit also offered some practical ideas for mitigating disputes related to free speech and making reasonable accommodations for those unable to comply with mask mandates, as well as addressing other ADA needs.
Marketing and Promotion
Public relations and community support have been more important than ever in the COVID era and market operators recognize the value in building and maintaining trust with both their vendor and customer base. Promoting and maintaining public support in the market has taken on a new significance during the pandemic. Markets are using the virtual opportunities COVID has presented to get creative in their brand awareness campaigns, particularly where market operations have been limited and/or market days have been reduced. Market operators in our indoor/winter community of practice and beyond shared a variety of PR and fundraising ideas they used, including:
- Market t-shirts or tote bags designed in partnership with local printers
- Organizing a virtual book club
- Organizing a socially distant volunteer event
- Offering virtual training or continuing education for vendors/producers
- Starting a market podcast
While markets hope that the 2021-2022 indoor/winter markets may look somewhat different than 2020-2021, there are certainly lessons all operators can take away from this year’s unusual indoor market season which could be helpful to indoor/seasonal operations in the future. Market operators acquired broad knowledge and in some cases direct experience in how to create flexibility in market models, how to design safe, efficient market spaces, and how to keep their market brand in the public eye and retain a presence in their community, even when market operations were limited or reduced. Those markets participating in this community of practice came together to participate in a shared teaching and learning experience, recognizing their common challenges and the unique perspectives each could bring to the conversation.
“For me this CoP experience reinforced the critical role farmers markets have in their communities. It highlighted the passion and knowledge base that makes markets of all sizes and stripes possible, as well as the dedication and commitment market organizers have for finding ways to keep markets open and safe during the pandemic, so as to keep communities connected to their local producers.”
Sherry Maher, Manager – Brattleboro Winter Farmers’ Market
Convening this community of practice also highlighted the real challenges for FMC with attempting to identify a set of “best practices” for farmers markets operating indoors during public health emergencies. While a one-size-fits-all approach can never be applied to the field of markets, the challenges of indoor operations during a pandemic shone a light on the unique difficulties faced by this group of market operators which vary depending on venue size/type, number of vendors, days/hours of operation, the average number of customers, and geographical location, among other factors. Although circumstances were different for each market, participants in this CoP engaged with one another about the obstacles they faced, shared ideas and experiences and, to an even greater degree, created a space for shared inspiration and reflection.
“Thanks to the pandemic, I have realized that market managers have superpowers that are widely applicable in many contexts. We understand regulations; we’re great at planning events; we’re responsive to people and their concerns; we welcome diversity; we can work magic on very short notice. Even though members of the CoP had unique challenges, I think it was a good reminder that we can reach out to each other for ideas and solutions to challenges. I know that I’ve corresponded with members of the CoP on unrelated market issues since our CoP wrapped up and have been very grateful for their thoughts.”
Kirsten Bansen Weigle, Program Specialist – Maple Grove Farmers Market