Manhattan’s Downtown Farmer’s Market will start on the date originally planned after narrowly securing a permit Tuesday evening.
The market will open on April 18 following a 3 to 2 vote via ZOOM by the Manhattan City Commission.
Mayor Usha Reddi proposed moving the start date to May or June over concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Reddi says the start date is near when the state and nation will be approaching the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, and that postponing the opening date was endorsed by Riley County Health Department Director Julie Gibbs. She also expressed concern that the market will bring customers out in large groups, many of whom would be the most vulnerable to the virus.
“And those are the ones that may or may not have health insurance,” says Reddi. “May or may not get tested because they’re afraid if they get hospitalized they can’t pay their health care bill.”
Reddi called it a tough decision, but that she felt postponing the start date was necessary.
Market President Andrea DeJesus says the market provides opportunities for seniors as well as SNAP and EBT recipients to double or even triple the value of their money — adding that they are implementing a variety of safety precautions and will not be treating the market as a social gathering.
“We are providing an essential product to the public,” says DeJesus. “We are just like a grocery store except we are outdoors which I feel is even safer.”
DeJesus says there will be 16 feet between vendors and a table placed as a spacer in front of all producers, chalk layouts to help customers stay physically distant as well as wider walkways than normal, and traffic will be routed one-way through the market. Additionally, only sellers will be allowed to touch produce and vendors will either need to have one person to handle money and one to handle product or wash their hands between each transaction.
Customers are encouraged to wear masks, hand washing stations will be present, no dogs will be allowed and customers will be limited to parties of two, and all prices will be rounded to avoid coins. They also will have a senior or high risk customer hour.
DeJesus also says holding off the start date will create a greater demand and larger crowds when it does start, adding that producers cannot stop their crops from growing and food will go to waste.
Commissioner Aaron Estabrook says he thinks the process is well thought out and that holding the market back would be harmful the vulnerable populations as well.
“This isn’t comparing a clothing store that we should or shouldn’t open — this is about food and that’s the only reason we’re having this discussion,” says Estabrook. “It’s essential and it also gives those people that are the most vulnerable the opportunity for their dollar to go three times as far.”
Commissioner Linda Morse expressed sympathy toward those whose livelihood depend on the market, but wanted to err on the side of caution and postpone the market especially given Director Gibbs’ recommendation.
“This is not something where we dash off into the sunset and are heroes,” says Morse. “We have to be heroes by exercising caution.”
Mayor Pro Tempore Wynn Butler says every business and individual needs to have the opportunity to assess their own risks and figure out safe ways to shop and get their stores back open, saying shutting every business down is not a one-size-fits-all solution and the government is taking away their choice.
“We have liquor stores open, they’re essential, we have supermarkets open, we have Target open — we have more things open than are closed,” says Butler. “It’s almost like we’re going out of our way to make things difficult for certain businesses that are doing a proper risk assessment — and each individual’s got to do their own, too.”
Commissioner Mark Hatesohl shared Butler’s perspective, saying he’d like to get more businesses open sooner than later as it’s “killing small businesses” and government relief will be too late.
“I’ll support the opening,” says Hatesohl. “But go at your own risk and wear a mask and do all those good things.”
“Everybody who’s saying keep everything closed, their paycheck hasn’t been affected by all these closures.”
Morse countered by saying the economy will recover, but in the meantime people are dying from the virus and it’s in the city’s mission to protect public safety and health.
“But we would want to be alive when this is over.”
Hatesohl responded that 98 percent of people are recovering from the virus, though 98 percent of those losing their jobs and businesses will not have recovered in three or four weeks.
Mayor Reddi and Commissioner Morse opposed awarding the permit, but the majority voted in favor. Morse expressed disappointment at the result.
“I’m really disappointed that the city commission is overriding the county health director,” says Morse. “I think it is important that all of our citizens take what the county health director says as really important in our futures.”
“It passed and we’ll live with it — I assume we will.”