How do you operate a farmers market during a raging global health pandemic?
Answer: Very carefully, with chalk stripes delineating vendor stations, checkpoints and vigilant volunteers.
A staffer booted a couple on Sunday morning after they dismissively declined to wear face masks.
Then a walkie-talkie crackled reminding everyone of the directive.
The Schenectady Greenmarket slowly groaned to life on Sunday morning outside of City Hall, the debut installment in the COVID-19 era.
For organizers, it was a delicate trial run to work out potential kinks during an unprecedented time.
“It’s not going to look like the market that everyone is used to,” said board member Mary Moore Wallinger.
Farmers markets have always been rooted in community, and providing an avenue for socialization is driving value as people browse artisan goods, watch cooking demonstrations and listen to shaggy folk musicians plonking out granola-fueled jams.
But that culture has been scrapped indefinitely.
“We’re really asking people not to linger,” said Wallinger, who is aware stir-crazy patrons cooped up for six weeks may use the event as an opportunity to get chatty. “This isn’t a time to bring grandma and the whole family to the market.”
For weeks, officials have been working with city and state agencies to hash out how the market, which was established in 2008, can operate safely under state guidelines and CDC regulations.
“We’re following all of those guidelines,” Wallinger said.
City Mission Ambassadors have been tasked with monitoring checkpoints and rapping anyone violating the six-foot social distancing protocols.
“The fate of the market depends on following the rules,” Wallinger said. “If it gets out of control and too many people show up, we’ll shut it down.”
Mayor Gary McCarthy approved the permitting — warily — after initially putting the boots to the effort.
“I declined to authorize the street closing permit just out of abundance of caution as we were going through the initial phases of the pandemic,” McCarthy said. “I’m more comfortable with the opening this week. But if there’s any deviation from the criteria that was set up, I will shut it down and it won’t be there next week.”
Aside from the anti-maskers, who took off mumbling down the Jay Street Pedestrian Mall, people behaved themselves, quickly buying their items before making a quick retreat.
While using the market as a social experience has been sidelined, Schenectady Greenmarket is now leaning into its other mission statements, including providing grocery store-deprived downtown dwellers options to buy healthy produce.
Market officials have said a majority of their customers receive SNAP and EBT benefits (but also acknowledge the county-run food delivery service may put a dent in demand, at least temporarily).
“We can’t compete with free,” Wallinger said.
And at a time when nationwide food chains are rattled, the Schenectady Greenmarket is also giving producers an outlet that reinforces the local food supply, a priority backed by state Ag & Markets, which has fought to keep farmers markets designated as essential businesses.
“Anything we do to maintain local farms and maintain relationships with [local food producers] is vital,” Wallinger said.
Typically the market has room for 68 stalls.
Twenty-four signed up to participate on Sunday, and officials said they expect the number to grow as vendors gradually adjust to the new normal.
Producers have taken a beating during the pandemic.
Gina Imbimbo, owner of Slate Valley Farm in Granville, said the virus evaporated maple season by wiping out the visitation to farms producers rely on for a big chunk of their annual revenue.
“We mostly do sales in March,” Imbimbo said. “It’s the only time of year people care about maple. Essentially, it’s a forgotten maple season and it’s devastating for a lot of maple producers.”
Amsterdam’s Lovin’ Mama Farm typically derives 90 percent of their sales from farmers markets, said owner Corinne Hansch.
“It was definitely heartbreakingly scary,” Hansch said on public life abruptly grinding to a halt six weeks ago.
But, she said, farmers are perpetually on the brink of survival.
“We know to pivot really quickly to stay alive.”
Within four days of the state order, Lovin’ Mama developed an online presence and with the support of Schenectady Trading Company, opened a pop-up site at their Union Street location.
“It’s a huge relief,” Hansch said. “Our mission is to feed our community and our neighborhoods, which is challenging.”
Lovin’ Mama is also adapting by giving people the option to pick up online orders at designated collection points across the Capital Region.
Schenectady Greenmarket has historically acted as a major driver to businesses along Jay Street, who welcomed the market’s return, but wanted to take a wait-and-see approach before preparing for an influx of shoppers.
Dilly Bean owner Abby Rockmacher opted to simply observe on Sunday.
“Are people coming out and following the social-distancing rules in place?” she said.
The shutdowns have dramatically altered the downtown landscape. Many businesses have altered their hours, and the restaurants that have remained open have dramatically scaled back inventory to prevent food waste.
With the market now open, business owners will calibrate how to balance human interaction and adjust to a potential uptick, said Rockmacher, who also serves as the president of the Jay Street Business Association.
“We’re trying to come together and work together and find the best route for everyone,” Rockmacher said.
Not all local businesses are experiencing a pinch.
Yankee Distillers pivoted to producing alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Business was brisk on Sunday as the singularly-named Nemo, a self-described “whisky consigliere,” engaged in witty repartee with passerby.
“Can I drink it?” asked a customer as he eyed the 64-ounce jug of clear anti-septic hand-rub.
“Absolutely not,” said Nemo, inserting an expletive.
Both the whiskey and sanitizer, which the distillery is producing using a formulation consistent with World Health Organization and U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, sold like hotcakes, perhaps the ideal quarantine package.
Business, Nemo said, has been “shockingly good,” and the hand sanitizer is driving whiskey sales.
The Clifton Park-based distillery currently produces between four and five 300 gallon batches each week.
“We’re currently ramping up to triple our capacity,” Nemo said. “When you have something everyone needs and no one has, business is good.”
Schenectady Greenmarket is open Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.