By Candace Krebs Ag Journal
Members of the Colorado Farmers Market Association joined local public health officials for a Colorado Department of Agriculture virtual town hall Tuesday, as program coodinators provided an update on the state's response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak that began earlier this year.
Kacey Wulff, senior advisor for Colorado's COVID-19 response, said positive cases had been "growing at an increasing rate," starting in June, with the trend mostly likely due to behavioral changes as states and communities began to relax earlier stay-at-home orders.
"The key point here is we're in this delicate moment in the response, and what we are trying to do is build a strong foundation to continue the opening," she said. "But we recognize this is very fragile. Hopefully we can prevent the need for other shut-downs in the future."
In response to the rising caseload, Governor Jared Polis signed an executive order on July 17 mandating mask wearing inside all indoor public spaces, which excludes children under age 10 and people with legitimate medical conditions.
While masks are not mandatory when outdoors, Wulff said wearing them at the market is still "a really good idea."
According to current estimates, 40 percent of new infections are caused by people without symptoms who don't yet know they are sick, she said.
"The good news is there's increasing evidence that masks are highly effective," she said.
When asked if any known transmission had ever been traced to a farmers market, Wulff was somewhat vague.
"We do see cases contracted in every environment. We have seen numerous outbreaks in essential businesses, particularly food businesses," she said. "I think it is important to know it has happened, and it is possible in the future."
Wulff attempted to put some context to how prevalent the virus is.
"COVID is everywhere now," she said. She estimated that somewhere around 1 in 600 are contagious with COVID at any given time.
That means high-traffic businesses should assume some exposure to active infections during the normal course of business.
Still, market venues are one of the safest options for customers who want to shop for healthy food.
"Being outdoors is safer than being indoors, because it's much better ventilated," Wulff emphasized. "Coronaviruses are really small and really light, so it is important to keep air moving."
"We also know this disease is dose-sensitive. The more volume of particles someone is exposed to, the more likely they are to get sick," she added.
Even in outdoor environments, it is still critical to maintain social distancing of six feet or more, she said, and to avoid bottlenecks or poor traffic flow patterns that lead to crowding or congregating.
As food providers, farmers markets were deemed essential businesses early on and have been allowed to continue operating despite the pandemic. But questions remain.
One source of confusion is whether markets can add non-food vendors, such as arts and crafts, without jeopardizing their essential status. Outdoor public events, such as art shows or concerts, fall under different guidance than essential businesses like food markets.
Another question posed was whether vendors should wear gloves when handling un-cut vegetables such as cucumbers and melons.
For definitive answers, market managers were repeatedly told to talk to their local county health department for guidance.
"It does fall back to your local public health agency. The local agency has the ultimate jurisdictional say in that," said Troy Huffman, retail food program coordinator for the Colorado Department of Public Health.
There is now less concern over the risk of transmission from food or food packaging, but Huffman said wearing gloves remains a good idea.
"In terms of best practices, I would say, yes, that's what we would all want to see," he noted. "A lot of it is perception by the consumer too. We prefer to be conservative and take a safe approach."
Huffman urged market managers to discuss any planned modifications with health officials in advance and to share experiences on how successful or problematic various strategies had been.
"At the state level, I really appreciate all the messaging your association has done to encourage members to interact with their local agencies," Huffman said. "For a lot of these decisions, it will be key to them working with you to do everything we can to make it a safe environment."
Wulff urged the markets to report any confirmed cases to local health officials immediately to help insure a rapid response and full collaboration. She said businesses should not be afraid to report outbreaks. Doing so demonstrates responsibility, vigilance, and a commitment to keeping workers safe, she said.
"There are those who might see it as a black eye, but I think it's actually a gold star," she said.
Colorado Ag Commissioner Kate Greenberg, who hosted the town hall, applauded the hard work of public health officials, market managers, farmers and vendors in these unprecedented times.
"Every day is a new day for all of us," she said. "We've never done what we're doing here. I thank everybody for all the work you've put in, especially with all you have on your shoulders right now."