By ERIN ROLL
Social distancing measures instituted when the Montclair Farmer’s Market opened in the spring have fallen by the wayside, some marketgoers say.
When the Montclair Farmers’ Market reopened in April, shoppers found new health and safety measures in place to ensure safety during the pandemic. Access to the market was restricted to one entrance and one exit to reduce crowd mingling, and six-foot spacing markers were placed throughout the area. Vendors provided “no-touch” shopping. Instead of customers picking out their items, vendors would handle the items, put them in numbered baskets and hand them over to checkout.
And the market was expanded to both sides of the railroad tracks to enable vendors’ canopies to be spaced linearly, allowing more room for shoppers. All shoppers and vendors are required to wear masks and gloves.
About 500 to 600 people come through the market on typical Saturdays, with about 50 people allowed in the market area at a time, said township sustainability officer Gray Russell, who is also on the market’s board of trustees.
Gone are the chef’s table tastings, the live music and the nonprofit tables. Instead, tape and rope mark off where customers are allowed to queue up.
Recent shoppers, however, complained about long lines and crowds, with not enough monitoring and social distancing. Others objected to some of the vendors no longer using no-touch shopping.
Market frequenter Jennifer Prost, of Montclair, said that until recently, the lines were monitored and kept moving, and vendors had line markers.
However, when Prost went on July 11, instead of a queue, people were going in freely, and no one was monitoring the entry point, she said.
“Most people were masked, but social distancing was inconsistent,” she said. “Some folks were doing it, some were not. I went to stand in one line where most people were standing maybe three feet apart.” She added that she had to ask shoppers to give her the six feet.
Prost has lost two family members to COVID-19, and she has other friends and acquaintances who are battling the illness as well.
Another customer on social media said that she went to the market on that day, only to leave after seeing large crowds there. However, other shoppers reported having a positive experience, with lines being monitored and with social distancing being properly maintained.
Russell said the trustees have received complaints from both shoppers and vendors, ranging from the rules being too strict to their being not strict enough. One shopper even complained about having to wear a mask, and drove away rather than don one, he said.
Staffers do monitor the number of customers allowed inside at one time, Russell said. The market has also hired two assistants to the market manager.
Russell acknowledged that there may be moments where no one is monitoring the entry line, such as when a staff member may need to use the restroom or assist other market staff.
On some weekends, the line of people waiting to enter has stretched past Trumpets and around the corner onto Label Street. But on Saturday, July 18, no one was waiting to get in, although there were long lines at the tables. Social distancing was being maintained. Customers and vendors wore masks, and vendors wore gloves while handling produce.
Russell said the two varieties of complaints were actually a good sign: “As long as people on both ends are complaining, I think we’re doing it right, I think we’re doing it well.”
Prost was told by a market staffer that they do monitor the crowds and for social distancing. The staffer also suggested that she come during the early hour reserved for elderly and immuno-compromised people.
“Frankly, I find it distressing to be around a lot of immuno-compromised and elderly folks who are more likely to have COVID-19 (keeping in mind the disaster that has happened at nursing homes), and frankly, that wasn’t my point,” Prost said.
The market has 27 vendors for the 2020 season. Four of them are farmers with produce, while the remaining 23 are specialty food vendors.
The main parking lot at Walnut Street is now reserved for the four farmers selling produce, to allow their stands to be spaced farther apart. The remaining vendors, who sell coffee, pickles, wine, baked goods and other specialty items, have been moved to the other parking lot on the other side of the tracks.
Anthony Vacchiano Jr., whose family runs Vacchiano Farms, said that his family’s experience at the market this season has been a good one.
“It’s going great. It’s been going on for a while now — everyone understands you have to social distance,” Vacchiano said, adding that customers have been showing up with masks on, and management has been doing a good job of enforcing social distancing.
Vacchiano Farms also does curbside pickup for high-risk customers, or for customers who do not feel comfortable coming to the market in person.
Because some customers and vendors objected to the no-touch shopping because it slowed down the shopping process, vendors can now set their own requirements on no-touch shopping, Russell said. Two of the farm produce vendors have continued with no-touch shopping, while the other two did not.
Vacchiano Farms opted to continue with no-touch, Vacchiano said. “I get nothing but compliments on no-touch,” he said of customer responses. “In the past, people would come by, touching every tomato looking for the perfect tomato, and squeeze every peach.”
Lynley Jones, of Adventure Kitchen, said the market staff had done a good job of keeping the market safe for customers and vendors. “It’s been pretty much as safe as it can be.”
Jones said, however, she has recently seen more customers coming to her booth without masks on, or without masks completely covering their faces. She said it can be awkward, as a vendor, trying to broach the subject with a customer and get them to follow the rules.
Jones also shops on the farmers’ side of the market as a customer. In her experience, the lines have been long, but regularly moving. She also said that she herself prefers the no-touch shopping when buying produce.
“I just think the whole board and the staff have done a fantastic job,” Jones said.
New Jersey Department of Agriculture guidelines include discouraging customers and vendors from coming to the market if they are showing symptoms of COVID-19, sanitizing high-touch surfaces such as cash registers, and using non-porous plastic tables that can be easily cleaned and disinfected.
“I can tell you, the customers miss the chef tastings, they miss the entertainment, and they miss the nonprofits,” Russell said. “We used to brag we were the place to be on a Saturday morning in the summer in Montclair.”
Prost said she intended to stay away from the market for the time being. “I miss going,” she said. “I miss seeing my friends there, I miss the vendors, some of whom feel like friends (they’ve watched my kids grow up), I miss the corn and tomatoes and basil.
“But I am doing my best to stay healthy, and with two family members dead from COVID-19, and many friends and acquaintances fighting for their lives, I refuse to take chances.”