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Baskets of strawberries, grapes, peaches, and cherries
Farmers markets in Seattle will have to wait a little longer before reopening.

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Seattle Farmers Markets Are Still ‘Stuck in a Loophole’

The markets don’t have a timeline for when they’ll return after the city denied a plan to reopen them Easter weekend

Last Tuesday, Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Markets (NFM) held a Zoom meeting with dozens of area farmers to prepare them for a return to the city on Easter weekend following a month-long closure due to COVID-19 precautions. The organization — which represents seven farmers markets in the area — had already posted a list of new procedures so that the outdoor markets could adhere to public health guidelines, including modified layouts to ensure 6 to 10 feet between vendor booths, the regular sanitization of “high touch” areas, and the distribution of protective gear to staff.

There are four Seattle-based markets currently in season: Ballard, West Seattle, Capitol Hill, and the U District, and NFM had worked with city officials for weeks to develop a way to reopen them safely by April 11. According to the group’s statement on social media, it had gotten clearance to do so from the King County Department of Public Health, Office of Sustainability and Environment, and the Office of Economic Development.

But on Friday, the plans were abruptly put on hold when the mayor’s office called at 11:30 a.m. and said the markets would not reopen.

“There were tears. And screams. We had to personally call each farmer and ask them to stop picking and washing vegetables,” read a post on NFM’s Facebook page. “We had to ask bakers to turn off their ovens. We had to call our dairies and tell them to sell milk to groceries in their hometowns because they are unable to bring it to Seattle this weekend.”

According Kelsey Nyland, communications associate at Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, the decision to keep Seattle’s farmers markets shut was part of a broader attempt to maintain social distancing measures, one that also entailed the closure of the area’s parks and beaches over Easter weekend.

“Because we still are in danger of a spike in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, we have to keep doing our part. Easing up on social distancing too early will put more people at risk and could overwhelm our health care system,” Nyland tells Eater Seattle. “Unfortunately, we have seen that some Seattle residents continue to disregard the governor’s mandatory ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy’ order, and continue to gather in public places, especially as the weather warms up.”

That might explain the reasoning behind Friday’s decision. But it still seems there may have been a disconnect between the markets and city officials, considering all the final preparations to reopen. “Our conversations were detailed and complex with public health and safety as the top priority, so it was a surprise to learn we wouldn’t re-open on Friday,” says Jennifer Antos, NFM’s executive director.

To understand what happened and why this issue has been somewhat contentious of late, it helps to know why the Seattle farmers markets were closed in the first place — and why reopening them isn’t as easy as it seems.

Under Washington’s current stay-at-home order, farmers markets are listed under “essential services” and are allowed to operate in the state (many still do). But after Seattle shut down its farmers markets on March 13, they were to remain closed under Durkan’s order, which banned large permitted events over public health concerns. Local officials have the authority to enact stricter measures than the state, and Seattle had lumped farmers markets with permitted events such as parades, festivals, and block parties.

NFM then released a petition urging city authorities to exempt farmers markets from the suspension of permitted events, and work with the group on enacting operational plans that would comply with CDC guidance on social distancing, sanitation, and employee health during the pandemic.

Recently, it seemed there was progress in that vein. Last week, the mayor extended the ban on permitted events until May 4, which is when Washington’s stay-at-home order is set to expire. But this time, the city said that farmers markets would be excluded from this extension “for a potential re-opening.” The mayor’s announcement went on to note that the city would work with the farmers markets to find a way “to safely operate as essential businesses and minimize exposure to COVID-19.”

By all accounts, this discussions proceeded as planned. NFM had already released a letter to the community going over some details on the proposed measures. Discussions continued, and last Tuesday’s Zoom call with the farmers seemed to indicate that everything was a go.

But there were also some lingering concerns about whether all the market vendors were prepared to comply with the set of social distancing guidelines agreed upon. “There have been multiple instances in the last few weeks where vendors have defied the city’s orders and have been operating without a permit,” says Nyland. She did not mention any specific vendors, although West Seattle Blog recently posted photos of what one resident described as an “informal farmers market” in the neighborhood on March 29.

For its part, NFM says the issue will be addressed, as long as discussions move forward. “Market organizations like NFM have the ability to work with our farm vendors to adapt to these new public health realities,” says Antos. “We are prepared to manage the markets and work with our vendor base, but if we don’t have permits to do this, we can’t.”

NFM also expressed frustration on its Facebook page for the whole situation, saying, “It’s hard to be stuck in a loophole, but that’s where we are and that’s largely where most farmers markets have always been. Lumped in as social gatherings and street festivals when in reality we are an essential food access point for the city of Seattle.”

Much of that frustration centers around the fact that farms are already hurting economically in Washington due to the pandemic, and keeping them on the sidelines in any capacity increases the strain. According to Antos, 80 percent or more of farmers’ household income comes from the markets, and there aren’t many safety nets. Seattle’s Small Business Stabilization Fund, which provides direct grants to small businesses impacted by COVID-19, doesn’t apply to farms that aren’t based in King County. And, as business owners, farmers are not eligible for unemployment.

But both sides seem willing to go back to the table and try to work out a path forward. “City leaders have has been working in good faith with us to reopen and I believe they will continue to do that,” says Antos. Seattle Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan plans to meet this week with NFM to outline next steps in the effort to reopen the four in-season markets, with the opening dates for others slated for later this spring, contingent on finalizing protocols. Says Nyland, “The City of Seattle remains committed to working with Public Health – Seattle and King County and the farmers markets to reopen these important community hubs as soon as possible.”

In the meantime, NFM has encouraged Seattleites to donate to the Good Farmers Fund and provided a list of vendors that sell directly to consumers. “It is critical that people understand farmers markets are not an uncontrolled recreation site, they are essential food access points that support public health,” says Antos. “Our farms are now facing even greater uncertainty, and every day that passes is critical.”