COVID-19 forces suburban farmers markets to scale back operations

By Erika Wurst and Tim Alexander For Chronicle Media

Illinois’ 350 farmers markets must operate in accordance with new rules this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. New guidelines include social distancing requirements, causing market managers and vendors to adjust their operations. (Photo courtesy of the ILFMA)

Some of Illinois’ 350 farmers markets will shutter during 2020, or postpone their openings indefinitely, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

However, most will carry on with new social distancing guidelines in place to protect market employees and consumers from exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

This is because “agricultural operations” such as farmers markets, under the direction of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which are involved in the “cultivation, marketing, production, and distribution of animals and goods for consumption” are considered essential businesses that are allowed to remain open during the duration of the state’s stay-at-home order, which will be in effect until May 30.

“Everything is evolving,” said Janie Maxwell, executive director of the Illinois Farmers Market Association (ILFMA), on April 30. “There are a number of communities that are bringing their farmer’s markets online, and doing curbside or online plus delivery. Now we are seeing some opening on a face-to-face, in-and-out model.

“I think we are starting to see a number of communities figuring out what’s best for them before moving forward. We are in that period when farmer’s markets and municipalities in central and northern Illinois are making these decisions.”

In order to be open for business, farmers markets must operate in accordance with social distancing requirements, causing market managers and vendors to adjust their business practices.

As market manager of Naperville’s 5th Street Farmers Market, Kathy Mortensen has prided herself on making the weekly event a family-friendly one.

She, and managing partner Anna Bensfield, put hours into creating activities that will never be lived out this summer.

ILFMA guidelines suggest one person per household attend this year’s markets, meaning children’s smiling faces and agricultural lessons won’t be present.

“It’s really sad,” Mortensen said. “It was going to be an amazing year, but you can only do what you can. We’ll keep the ideas in our pocket.”
But just because those ideas were put on hold doesn’t mean the Naperville Farmers Market can’t adapt in ways to cater to shoppers’ current needs.
In addition to sanitizer stations, shopper limits and vendor guidelines, the market has added a drive-thru service for people who would rather not peruse the booths by walking around.
“It’s hard for one person to cover the entire area and carry all of their items,” Mortensen said. The drive thru option makes for easy shopping.
The Naperville Market runs every Saturday from June 6 through Oct. 31 from 6:45 a.m.-noon. Drive-thru service begins at 12:30 p.m.
Oswego shoppers will see similar guidelines when they stop by the local farmers market when it opens in later next month.
“With the health and safety of our community in mind, the Oswego Country Market plans to run this season with some modifications,” said Market Manager Cori Veverka. She noted that the market will make a temporary shift towards a set-up that complies with social distancing. The “In and Out” style, which includes designated entrances and exits, is being utilized by many local markets this season.
Greater spacing between booths, fewer vendors, and one-way traffic are all changes that will be implemented in Oswego.
Group gatherings of family and friends will also be prohibited, as tables and chairs for sitting and eating will be removed. Like Naperville, all musical acts and activities will be canceled for this season in Oswego.

The Aurora Farmers Market is the state’s oldest continuously-running farmers market and will return for its108th year in June with similar adjustments due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The market opens on June 17 at Water Street Square for Saturday purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables and other goods.
Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin made the announcement on Wednesday, May 13 as he resumed a  series of media gatherings at City Hall after a two-month hiatus.
“This year the market will operate as an in-and-out market strictly with produce from farmers and food from local businesses which will be physically spread out in Water Street Square,” Irvin said. “Each will be required to have measures in place, including social distancing procedures, signage and designated staff members to handle food with the proper PPE (personal protective equipment).”
The market will have separate a separate entry and exit and a limit to the number of customers. All persons will be required to wear facemasks or coverings.
“The market may look different but it will allow our residents to still obtain fresh fruits and vegetables while supporting local businesses and farms.”
The Saturday market will run from 8 a.m.-noon. Irvin said the west side farmers market in Aurora, held on Wednesdays, will be canceled this summer.

Both Bensfield and Mortensen said the month of June will be very telling as far as how long the more stringent guidelines will be in place.
Mortensen said she is hoping that some of the restrictions will soon come to an end and local markets will return to their fun, family-style ways.
“The kids have been sitting home all day long,” she said. “They need to get out and get some sunshine. “The guidelines are something we will continue to look at and have discussions on.”
Illinois boasts the third most number of farmers markets in the country, serving as the primary source of revenue for many beginner or small farms, according to the Illinois Farm Bureau.

For an interactive map of registered farmer’s markets in Illinois, visit the ILFMA website (

Oswego Country Market

June 28-Oct. 18

9 a.m.-1 p.m.

Downtown Main Street

Naperville 5th Street

Farmers Market

June 6 – Oct. 31

6:45 a.m.- Noon,

Drive-thru Service at 12:30 p.m.

200 E. Fifth Ave.


Aurora Farmers Market
June 27 – early October

8 a.m. – Noon

Water Street Square (65 Water Street)