Is it safer to shop at farmers’ markets than in supermarkets?

Photo: RetailWire
May 13, 2020
Matthew Stern

The way people grocery shop is changing — maybe temporarily, and maybe for good. One shopping trend that was experiencing pre-pandemic popularity might offer unique advantages in the era of social distancing.

While consumers have received conflicting guidance regarding their level of safety during the pandemic, farmers’ markets may actually be safer than conventional grocery stores, according to a Brookings Institution article. Being outside, they can allow for enhanced social distancing. Movable, temporary booths may be more effectively cleaned than in-store fixtures. Produce is presumably touched by fewer hands due to a shortened supply chain, and arranging pickup with vendors can cut down on time spent standing in line.

Since March, a rapidly evolving scientific understanding of how the novel coronavirus moves and the ways COVID-19 is most commonly contracted has led to revisions in — and disagreements about — how both customers and retailers can prevent spreading the pathogen.

Experts disagree about the extent to which being outside might make the spread of coronavirus less likely and what public health strategies built around that should look like, as described in an article on The Hill.

Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb pointed to a non-peer reviewed study from China, which appears to indicate markedly reduced transmission rates occurring out of doors. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that enjoying nature poses a low rate of transmission. Professor Eleanor Murray of the Boston University School of Public Health, however, cautioned that crowds are still a concern, even if they are outside, meaning social distancing must still be obeyed.

Municipalities globally have begun experimenting with expanding outdoor restaurant seating as a potentially safer way to open up economies, which Wired characterizes as a possible lifeline for struggling restaurants.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How can farmers’ markets better position themselves to allay customer fears during this time? Should traditional grocers consider outside operations during the pandemic and might they remain in operation after the threat has passed?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Where the heck is leadership on guidelines from the federal government?"
"With the emergence of more localized and community-based consumer demand, farmers’ markets may just be the elixir we need to safely get out of our homes..."
"Ironic that we are having this discussion since the virus supposedly spread from an outdoor market — though certainly one of a different nature."

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17 Comments on "Is it safer to shop at farmers’ markets than in supermarkets?"

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Zel Bianco

My daughter and son-in-law live in Brooklyn and they have been ordering a box that is put together by vendors at the farmers’ market where they pick what they have at the time. It is all fresh of course. Sometimes you may get an item that does not look too appetizing, like a lamb’s leg, but hey — like Forest Gump’s mom used to say, “you never know what you’re going to get.” All in all, they have been mostly pleased with the quality of the food.

Bob Phibbs

Where the heck is leadership on guidelines from the federal government? Retailers, restaurateurs, and all of us are trying to decipher what is and isn’t necessary, what is and isn’t prudent, and what safer looks like. Consumers were whiplashed from the whole “masks are the only thing that will protect you, masks are useless, masks might be good, masks are only to prevent others from getting your particles” mess. Everyone is trying their best but at some point fatigue will overtake anything people say regarding what “safer” means. And that’s the real problem.

Gene Detroyer

Great rant or should I say vent. I could not agree with you more. The consequence of these contradicting messages is that people will just give up and not do anything appropriate.

Ben Ball

Ironic that we are having this discussion since the virus supposedly spread from an outdoor market — though certainly one of a different nature. We frequent all the weekly farmers’ markets around our area but it isn’t a new thing for us. What has changed is the procedures at the markets and we have been impressed by the procedures established, the vendors’ compliance and the behavior of patrons. It always feels healthier to be outside. But I don’t think our traditional food chain is inherently less safe. It is simply the proximity of people and constrained space that makes a supermarket slightly more risky.

Neil Saunders

There is no doubt that a lot of people feel safer outside than they do in enclosed spaces. That can be an advantage for farmers’ markets, provided they put in place other safeguards such as preventing crowding. I am sure that some supermarkets can be more creative outside – maybe setting up stalls in the parking lot – but the economic viability of doing so, and managing the whole process, might be challenging. Moreover, it would not work in every part of the country: shopping in the heat of the Arizona sun is not very appealling and not very good for fresh produce!

Richard Hernandez

I know some farmers’ markets are allowed to operate and this is based on local ordinances in place. They are required to follow social distancing and cleanliness rules that other businesses are required to follow. So far, it has been successful during this time.

Steve Montgomery

Is one safer than the other? That depends on two factors. One of these is, what is the supermarket or farmers’ market doing to provide a safe place to shop? Just as important, or perhaps even more so, what are the customers doing to protect themselves and other shoppers?

Michael Terpkosh

There are great opportunities for farmers’ markets to effectively work during the pandemic, but following the key social distancing measures, masks, etc. should be required. Plus allowing only so many people to walk-thru at a time, in a one-way direction. I know some farmers’ markets (in tighter spaces) have moved to online order and pick-up. I’m not sure how this will work, but they are trying. For any retailer or market, crowd control is essential because I am not sure consumers will self-police.

Ralph Jacobson

There are still too many conflicting reports on COVID-19 to determine real facts at this point. Although some research may state you are less likely to become infected if you’re outdoors, I also know of no outbreaks that stemmed from supermarkets, DIY stores, etc., which have been operating with shoppers elbow-to-elbow for months. I really don’t think any of us understand how to effectively address this at the moment. Why does New York State, with half the population of California, have more than 10 times the COVID-19 deaths of California?

Bottom line: strictly enforce guidelines at your stores, and adapt as new information arises.

Mohamed Amer

An open air environment has an advantage over closed spaces with regards to the concentration of the virus in the air. But if everyone is shoulder to shoulder and without masks, it really doesn’t matter if the sky is the limit.

Jeff Sward

All other variables being equal, it sounds like the combination of outdoors and a shortened supply chain with less handling makes for a safer shopping experience.

Scott Norris

The working conditions at the big meatpacking plants have clearly led to infections and fatalities, and then to supply disruptions. Disease researchers have been calling this out for years. Local supply chains are more responsive and more responsible, and keep shoppers’ money in the region instead of ending up in a multinational’s account in Grand Cayman. I know and trust my local butcher and farmers’ market suppliers and will stick with them.

Peter Charness

We hit one of the local farmers markets here in Portland (OR) on Sunday. Nice sunny weather, vs. the typically Portland grey and rain, so people were out. Not ready for prime time. We were a bit stunned at the lack of masks and lack of distancing. (And no, wearing a mask that covers your mouth not your nose doesn’t cut it).

There’s quite a ways to go to educate people and get to a safe non lockdown mode. We’ve been quite lucky (or well managed) relative to infection rates in this state. Oregon is low despite our proximity to Washington state. If the Farmers Market was any indicator, it won’t be easy to hold onto that success.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

I certainly feel safer shopping in an outdoor setting. Our local San Diego farmers markets were right on it working to keep farmers and foodies connected safely through distancing stands, accepting only electronic payments, installing sanitizing stations, limiting who touches products and admitting an appropriate number of shoppers at any one time.

Brandon Rael

With the emergence of more localized and community-based consumer demand, farmers’ markets may just be the elixir we need to safely get out of our homes, support local farmers, and avoid some of the anxiety-filled experiences of going to the local grocery store. Ultimately it comes down to consumer choice. With the warmer weather, they now have the option of shopping at the grocery store, or at their local farmers market.

Regardless of wherever consumers choose to shop, safety, health, wellness, and an air of precaution are key in these times. However, farmers’ markets are not a new trend, The more localized farm to table movement was already in motion before COVID-19, and now perhaps there will be an acceleration at both the community-based grocery store, and farmers markets of more assortments from local farmers.

Craig Sundstrom
11 months 22 hours ago

I think the answer to the second question is pretty easy … no: it may be tempting, but it overlooks the fact that everything from ambient temperature to basic sanitation is easier controlled in an indoor environment (indeed methinks it’s a classic example of pursuing one goal to the detriment of all others).

What can farmers’ markets do? As is often the case, the goals are at cross-purposes: on the one hand, we want to serve more people. OTOH one of the big attractions is the lessened density (i.e. serving FEW people). Perhaps a compromise would be to move to reduce density by expanding days and moving to larger locations: with so many business (even downtown) areas practically abandoned, there must be a limitless supply of streets that can be closed off.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader
11 months 19 hours ago

An outdoor market would seem to provide more open space for people to follow proper social distancing and have fewer hands touching food products, so all other theories aside, farmers’ markets seem to have an advantage. I’ve seen restaurants that are providing grocery sales also make use of outdoor space, so there may be a strong psychological component at play that makes people feel safer, too.

"Where the heck is leadership on guidelines from the federal government?"
"With the emergence of more localized and community-based consumer demand, farmers’ markets may just be the elixir we need to safely get out of our homes..."
"Ironic that we are having this discussion since the virus supposedly spread from an outdoor market — though certainly one of a different nature."

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