Farmers' market operators say new lockdown regulations unfairly forcing them outdoors

Vendors and the operators of Toronto’s farmers' markets are urging the province to reconsider a regulation that prevents them from operating as an essential service.

St. Lawrence farmers' market to move outside due to new provincial restrictions

Vegetable farmer Marvin Creighton said the province should classify farmers' markets as essential food retailers. (Marvin Creighton/Submitted)

Vendors and the operators of Toronto's farmers' markets are urging the province to reconsider a regulation that appears to prevent them from operating as an essential service.

The updated regulations indicate that farmers' markets in areas under a lockdown may only operate outdoors.

Critics say the markets should instead be classified alongside other food retail businesses such as grocery stores and supermarkets, which are permitted to stay open for full indoor service.

"I was heartbroken," said Marvin Creighton, a vegetable farmer based in Waterdown, Ont. who has been selling produce at the St. Lawrence Market's farmers market since 1974.

"They need to look at the St. Lawrence Market Complex as essential, which they did before, and let us stay open."

The farmers' market at St. Lawrence had been operating for months at a temporary indoor structure south of the market's main building, which will remain open. 

The City of Toronto, which operates St. Lawrence Market, initially planned to shut down the farmers' market after the new regulations were announced, though it will now attempt to move the market outdoors temporarily.

Samantha Wiles, a spokesperson for St. Lawrence Market, said the province indicated earlier this summer that it would categorize farmers' markets as an essential food service. That decision appears to have been reversed when Toronto entered a new 28-day lockdown on Nov. 23.

The St. Lawrence Market Saturday farmers' market had been operating inside this temporary structure. The city says new provincial regulations mean it must now move outdoors. (Google)

"I think it's a poor decision to not view this as essential, good access to food in a local community," said Brad Stevenson, co-chair of the Wychwood Barns Community Association, which operates a weekend farmers' market.

The Wychwood Barns market had been slated to move indoors for the winter. Stevenson said the regulations will be another blow to vendors who have already struggled to survive during the pandemic.

"It's hard to even quantify the damage that's been done to small business and to farmers," he said.

A host of other small retailers have taken aim at the province's latest COVID-19 restrictions, arguing that the regulations unfairly favour big box stores.

In a statement to CBC Toronto, Ontario's Ministry of Health indicated that farmers' markets have not been explicitly ordered to move outdoors under the new regulations.

"If a business is uncertain as to whether it falls within one of the categories in the regulations permitted to open ... we recommend that it seek independent legal advice regarding its specific circumstances," a ministry spokesperson said.

However, the City of Toronto's legal department determined that operating an indoor farmers' market contravened the provincial regulations, prompting its decision to move the St. Lawrence farmers market outdoors.

Farmers markets as safe as grocery stores, operators say

Operators of farmers' markets say they can operate indoors while adhering to the same health and safety protocols required at supermarkets and grocery stores.

"Over the course the COVID crisis, markets across Ontario have implemented strict measures and protocols to protect the safety of vendors and shoppers," said Catherine Clark, executive director of the industry association Farmers' Markets Ontario.

Stevenson said the precautions at Wychwood Barns exceed those of a typical supermarket, including greater physical distancing, customer screening and the collection of information for contact tracing.

Wiles said the indoor farmers' market at St. Lawrence has been operating successfully for months under strict protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"We have all the precautions in place to ensure that people can keep their physical distance, everyone is screened before they enter, everyone wears masks," she said.

"We would be able to operate inside if the regulations permitted it."