An outdoor summer tradition in the Quad-Cities will go on as planned, as the Freight House Farmers Market will expand Saturday in its operating hours and vendors, but with public-safety restrictions.

From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at 421 W. River Drive, Davenport, the market will have its first May day under the Covid-19 crisis.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on April 24 allowed farmers markets to open, despite a ban on large gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic, with restrictions. Only farm products or food can be sold (including prepared hot food and baked goods) at such markets, and other goods and services are prohibited.

Freight House

Markets must eliminate all common seating areas, picnic tables, or dining areas. They must space all vendor booths so there is six feet or more of empty space from one vendor’s assigned area to the neighboring vendor.

Farmers markets must also implement reasonable measures to ensure social distancing of vendors and customers, increased hygiene practices, and other public health measures to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid-19, according to the governor’s order.

Lorrie Beaman, executive director of the Freight House Market, said no prepared foods or food trucks will be allowed at least in these first few weeks, and Saturday will be limited to 50 or fewer vendors, spaced apart.

“This first Saturday will be a big test, because it’s supposed to be gorgeous,” she said recently.

The market has offered space for outdoor vendors this past winter through April (from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays), with 12 or fewer vendors. In mid-March, as shutdowns started, they closed the indoor market (which had about 20 vendors), and a few of those set up outside. Beaman said that last Saturday, they had about 500 people come through.

“We could easily see 14,000 people come through on an opening weekend, but now we find ourselves hoping that doesn’t happen. And I’m sure it won’t.”

“Part of it is training our customers, what the new expectations are down here at the market,” Beaman said. “We’ve already started that with some Facebook Lives. We continue to reiterate, we want ‘em here, we want ‘em to come down and support our farmers. We know how important it is for them right now, especially they know where their food is coming from and can feel secure with their food purchases, and that they’re not going through a lot of hands on the way to their table.”

“It’s really not the market as they’ve known it in the past,” she said. “This is such a big community gathering place on Saturdays, because we normally have live music and entertainment.”

The farmers market typically has 220-some vendors, including arts and crafts and non-food offerings. Now each food vendor is required to wear a mask, gloves, and have additional tables in front, between customers and the products, which will be in the back.

Customers are encouraged to wear a mask, come with a prepared shopping list, be quick, and no sampling is allowed, Beaman said. Each booth will have a parking space (at minimum) between them.

“They’re normally right on top of each other,” she said. “Depending on how it looks, we may change it up so there’s only vendors on the north side of an aisle and not put any vendors to the south side, if we feel we need more social-distancing room for our customers, so they can move around the market and not really be on top of each other.”

With the nicer weather the past couple weekends, more customers have been coming out. “We really found it has not been a problem,” Beaman said. “So many people have come wearing a mask. Our vendors have done a good job following the protocol. Everything is wrapped before it gets to the market.”

“Again, we haven’t gotten to ‘the season,’ and this will be a big test, to see how well this works,” she said of this Saturday. “We are outside; it is open air. I’d rather be out here buying my groceries in the open air than inside a grocery store, going down tight aisles with people, too.”

The summer hours now are 8 to 1 Saturdays, but not Sundays yet. She hopes to grow back to the traditional size market in June; the Illinois stay-at-home order and business closings have been extended through May 30.

Gov. Reynolds’ comments about lifting restrictions came as Iowa recorded its highest single day of positive Covid-19 tests and deaths due to the virus. On April 24, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported 11 additional deaths, and that total rose to 136 lives in Iowa as of April 27. That includes five deaths in Scott County, which has had 218 confirmed cases.

Iowa Department of Public Health Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter said that Iowa is likely to see a peak of infections “in the next two to three weeks” as testing improves.

On Monday, Reynolds announced that some businesses in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties can begin operating again, with limited capacity, starting Friday, May 1.

The counties that can partially re-open either have no coronavirus activity or have seen a downward trend in positive cases over the past 14 days, which does not include Scott County.

The businesses that can operate in those 77 more rural counties include restaurants at 50% operating capacity; they cannot have tables with more than six people, and all tables must be at least six feet apart. Restaurants cannot have buffets or other self-serve items.

With local restaurants closed, farmers markets are an even more important source of revenue for growers, Beaman said. “The margins are small and the work is hard. They’re committed to a good, healthy food system. And if we want to keep them, we need to support them. We have to continue to cultivate that here in our area.”

Freight House market volunteers on Saturday also will monitor the crowd, and may limit the number of people in at once, before letting more in, Beaman said.

Lorrie Beaman

“There are so many unknowns right now, with everybody,” she said. “We’ve had vendors that have pulled out of markets for the year, in anticipation. We have people who are older, have a compromised immune system, that have been vendors for many years.”

“They have to have a way to get their product to market, but it’s something they have to really weigh,” Beaman said. “In a normal time, when restaurants are open, a lot of them have contracts with restaurants, but now that’s not part of the game for them either. We don’t know if that will be two weeks or a month.”

Last week, the Freight House market also introduced a new online ordering service. You pick the food up there during market hours, delivered to your car. So far, about 700 people have already registered online to be customers, Beaman said.

“We look to that to continue to grow this summer, and beyond this Covid,” she said. They also hope to have a delivery service for that as well.

By June 1, Beaman hopes the market will be back at full capacity. “That’s our wishful thinking right now, fingers crossed. Still keeping the protocols in place, and we’ll probably have that protocol all summer.”

“Just like anything else, other vendors need the revenue too, like the crafters,” she said. “We’re hoping by June 1, we can open that up. We may have a different look to how we do our music, and gathering together.”

“We know people need it, not just the food,” Beaman said. “They need that sense of community again. We’ve really been wracking our brains for how we could bring that feeling, that sense of being a part of that community, of humanity. When you go to fairs and events, part of it is just being with people – watching people, enjoying people, having conversations.”

“How do we do that in a safe, responsible way, as we move through this?” she asked. “That’s important, too. How do we live with this now? Because we’re gonna have it for a while.”

“We’ve really been thoughtful with our decisions – our decision to open, our decision to stay open,” she said. “We want to be what everybody looks to and says, ‘They did it right’. That’s really important to us.”

Not everybody’s gonna want to embrace this – coming outside and coming to the market,” Beaman said. “I’m sure there are a fair number of people who don’t think it’s a good thing to do, and I understand that.”

“It’s a balance, and I think for us, the importance of good, fresh, healthy, local food doesn’t outweigh it, but it helps us to balance it. It’s worth the extra work to make sure it happens and we do it right.”

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.