The state Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Department of Health on Friday re-emphasized their guidance for preventing the spread of COVID-19 at agri-tourism operations, after five visitors tested positive for the illness after spending a couple of hours at a popular apple orchard in the Syracuse area.
The advice is coming, though, at the end of the traditional you-pick apple season, which begins as early as Labor Day. Those who operate orchards say people have seemed glad for a wholesome outdoor activity after months of quarantining, even though they are being told to wear masks and maintain social distance from other parties. There are no known cases of virus transmission at any Capital Region-based orchards.
“It’s been a successful season, a good response and everybody is very respectful and understanding about the situation we’re in,” said Alan Colyer, co-owner of Fo’Castle Orchard in Burnt Hills, a you-pick operation on Blue Barns Road that at this point has mostly Red Delicious and Crispin apples left.
The state’s agricultural sector in general has been hard-hit economically by the pandemic. In anticipate of the fall harvest season, the state in early September issued specific guidance restricting the number of people who can visit businesses like you-pick apple orchards and making mask-wearing mandatory while on a farm.
For some businesses — like apple orchards and pumpkin growers — the fall is when they do the majority of their business, with the public’s thirst to get in some quality outdoor time before winter, to eat apple cider doughnuts, and visit businesses like corn mazes and hayrides. The state’s general policy has been to encourage such operations as a way to sustain its rich agricultural industry.
“We want these farms open and operating and the public to be able to take advantage of these great family activities, but we need everyone to follow the guidelines to keep New Yorkers safe,” state Commissioner of Agriculture Richard A. Ball said.
“Picking your own fruits and vegetables directly from farms is a great outdoor family activity that encourages healthy eating and supports local agriculture, but please stay safe,” said Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner. “Remember to avoid large crowds, practice social distancing, wear a mask, and wash or sanitize your hands frequently. While New Yorkers have done a great job reducing the spread of COVID-19, recent pockets of cases have shown us that we are not out of the woods yet.”
The broad guidelines for apple and fruit picking follow the rules already established by the state for low-risk outdoor arts and entertainment.
At Fo’Castle Orchard, Colyer said there are signs at the entrance about wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Signs ask that one person from each vehicle come up and buy bags for the apples, replacing the past practice of bags being weighed, with the apples sold by weight. There is also an extra washing station, in addition to one at the portable toilet.
“Most everybody has a mask on, then they go out in the orchard and stick together,” he said.
Colyer said the pandemic, indirectly, may have helped make it a good year. “There’s been a lot of people here, a strong response, just to get out and do something,” he said. “Everyone has cabin fever.”
It is also the last year for the orchard operation, said Colyer, who has been in the apple business for 55 years. “I’ve had a lot of fun, I’ve learned a lot and met a lot of nice people, but it’s time,” he said on Saturday.
The closing of the orchard won’t have any impact on the nearby Fo’Castle Farm Country Store, Colyer noted. The store is under different ownership.
In Schuylerville, Saratoga Apple offered no wagon rides into the orchard this year because of COVID, required mask-wearing and social distancing inside the orchard store and U-Pick tent, and required customers to use pre-paid bags, according to a note from owner Nate Darrow on the business’ website.
Bowman Orchards in Clifton Park also has new rules this year requiring customers to use pre-paid bags for picking apples, limiting hayride capacity to 50 percent, requiring social distancing and strongly urging mask use, according to the orchard’s website.